NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY
Monday 22 October 2007
Executive Committee Business:
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr Speaker: Members will have noted that the interim Clerk and Chief Executive to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Carol Devon, has taken up her post and is in the Chamber. I am sure that Members will join me in wishing Mrs Devon every success in her new role at the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Durkan: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At last Tuesday’s sitting, you accepted a point of order from Mr Peter Robinson, who was sitting on the Front Bench as Minister of Finance and Personnel. I and at least one other Member sought to challenge whether Mr Robinson’s point of order should have been accepted. You ruled us out of order and did not allow us to make the point that the blue book — ‘The Northern Ireland Assembly Companion’ — clearly addresses the matter of points of order during ministerial statements or questions. The blue book quotes a ruling by a previous Speaker on 3 July 2000:
“I have already ruled that points of order will be taken after ministerial statements and questions.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 5, p373, col 2].
That ruling was changed by the ruling that you made last Tuesday, Mr Speaker. I note that last Tuesday’s Hansard report includes your ruling that it was appropriate to take a point of order after a statement, but not during questions.
Mr Speaker, I have read the blue book; I have noted that it refers to a ruling of a previous Speaker on 3 July 2000; and I have looked up that ruling, which is clear:
“I have already ruled that points of order will be taken after ministerial statements and questions. [Interruption]
No, the ruling is that points of order will be taken at the end.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 5, p373, col 2].
That clearly meant that points of order would be taken only after questions on the statement had been concluded. Will you enlighten us on the basis of the new ruling?
Mr Speaker: I say to the Member, and I said it here last Tuesday, that the Speaker will decide which points of order he will take and when he will take them. I have made it absolutely clear that the Speaker’s advice on all matters in the House is final. I decided — and explained after the issue was raised again — when I would take a point of order. I made it absolutely clear that I would take the point of order after, not during, the ministerial statement or after questions on the ministerial statement.
Mr Durkan: Mr Speaker, do you accept that the previous ruling was that a point of order would be taken only after the questions that followed a statement and that it clearly meant at the end of that process?
There is a further issue in that the point of order that was raised was not a point of order: no Standing Order was cited. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to take his seat. I will not answer any more questions on this particular — [Interruption.]
Mr Ford: Mr Speaker —
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr Durkan: Mr Speaker —
Mr Speaker: Order. I made it absolutely clear last week. When the point of point of order was made, I adjourned the sitting for 20 minutes. Everybody in the House would have agreed with adjourning the sitting on the very serious point of order that was raised on a number of legal issues. I felt that it was my duty, as Speaker, to protect this House, and I believe that it has been protected as regards that particular point of order.
Mr Durkan: I have further questions to ask on that matter. When the sitting resumed, you sought to relay to the House the views of the head of the Civil Service. Those views very much had the effect of influencing what some Members may have thought about the statement that had been made. Will you tell the House whether the head of the Civil Service contacted you during that break in proceedings or whether you contacted him? Has a precedent been set that you, as Speaker, will relay advice to the House on behalf of the Civil Service?
Mr Speaker: I am going to move on to the next item of business; I am not prepared to answer any other points of order on this issue. Last Tuesday was a difficult time in the House. I sought to protect the House, which I believe I have done, and to calm people down, which I think also happened. Those were my only interests. When Mr Robinson raised the point of order, my interest was in making absolutely clear that this House was protected legally. I believe that it was, and I ruled accordingly when I returned to the House. Therefore, I am taking no further points of order on this particular issue, and I am going to move on to the next item of business.
Mr Attwood: On a different point of order.
Mr Speaker: Is the point of order on a different matter?
Mr Attwood: Yes. At the end of the debate on 16 October on the future of the conflict transformation initiative, the First Minister asked, in relation to the rulings of previous Speakers:
“Does there come a time to say “Amen” to those rulings and bury them?” — [Official Report, Vol 24, No 8, p394, col 1].
At that time, Mr Speaker, you said:
“I am very happy to report back to the House on that point of order.” — [Official Report, Vol 24, No 8, p394, col 1].
When do you intend to report back to the House on that matter, given that, to my knowledge, there has never been on the Floor of either this Assembly or any previous Assembly such a fundamental challenge to the good conduct of business than when a First Minister says that it is time to “bury” previous rulings?
Mr Speaker: The Member well knows from his own experience that many procedures in Parliaments and Assemblies are based on previous decisions from the Speaker. He also knows that Speakers, Members and staff are guided by such procedures until they are superseded by further decisions. I am going to leave those particular points of order where they are and move on the next item of business.
Mr Ford: On a point of order.
Mr Speaker: Is your point of order on a separate issue?
Mr Ford: Yes. On 11 September 2007, under Standing Order 18, you ruled:
“I intend to call members of the Executive to ask questions following a statement from a ministerial colleague only in special circumstances. I may still call them as private Members”. — [Official Report, Vol 23, No 6, p255, col 1].
On 16 October, in response to the Minister for Social Development’s statement on the conflict transformation initiative, you called Mr Peter Robinson — it was certainly in unusual circumstances, and Mr Robinson was seated on his party’s Back Benches. However, the line of questioning that he adopted related to advice that was available only to Ministers. He referred to the Departmental Solicitor’s Office and the Executive secretary. I ask you to consider whether it may be necessary to amplify your ruling for Ministers’ benefit in future, or perhaps you should advise Ministers to keep their arguments to the Executive table.
Mr Speaker: On the afternoon of Tuesday 16 October, it was made absolutely clear that Mr Robinson was speaking as a private Member, which is why he sat on the Back Benches. I have continually said that I cannot control what Members say in the Chamber. It was made clear that Mr Robinson was speaking not as a Minister or on behalf of the Executive but as a private Member, which is why he sat on the Back Benches.
Mr Ford: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, I entirely accept that you called Mr Robinson as a private Member. However, his line of questioning was that of one Minister to another Minister. Will you consider whether your ruling was complied with adequately?
Mr Speaker: I cannot be privy to the information that any private Member may have on any issue. When Mr Robinson spoke, I was not privy to what he might say. The difficulty is that, on many occasions in the House, neither I, as Speaker, nor the Deputy Speakers know what Members may say or do. In procedural terms, I am satisfied that on the afternoon of 16 October, Mr Robinson spoke as a private Member.
Mr Durkan: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, when you resumed proceedings after the suspension, you told the House that you had spoken to Nigel Hamilton, the head of the Civil Service, who had some concerns. You also said that you had spoken to:
“other members of the Executive, who also expressed some serious concerns about the matter and about the Minister’s statement.” — [Official Report, Vol 24, No 8, p389, col 1.]
I understand that that included the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Robinson. Surely the points that he raised, supposedly as a Back Bencher or an ordinary Member, were exactly the same points that he raised as a member of the Executive.
Mr Speaker: That is not at all correct. I made it absolutely clear that I had spoken to my officials and to a number of people; the protection of the House was uppermost in my mind, and I had to be absolutely clear that the House was being protected. The legal advice was that no procedures had been broken and that the ministerial statement, and questions from Members, could continue.
Mr Durkan: With due respect, Mr Speaker, that still does not answer my question on whether the points that were raised by Mr Robinson as a private Member were the same points that he raised when he spoke to you during the suspension of proceedings as a member of the Executive, and he did speak to you during the suspension as a member of the Executive
Mr Speaker: What Members say to me in my office will not be discussed in the House. All Members, on all sides of the House, would respect that.
I am not taking any further points of order on the issue.
Mr Durkan: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker —
Mr Speaker: I am taking no further points of order on this issue.
Review of Water and Sewerage Services
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister for Regional Development that he wishes to make a statement regarding the Executive’s response to the Independent Water Review Panel’s strand one report.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. Before I make my statement, I offer my condolences, and the condolences of the House, to the Quinn family in Cullyhanna on the tragic death of their son Paul. I unreservedly condemn what was a brutal murder, and I call on anyone who can provide any assistance to the investigation into that criminal act to make that information available to either An Garda Síochána or the PSNI.
I wish to make a statement on the review of water and sewerage services and, in particular, the Independent Water Review Panel’s strand one report. On 11 June, I announced the terms of reference for a review of water and sewerage services, following the Executive’s decision not to impose direct rule water charges in 2007-08 and to conduct an independent review of those services. The terms of reference set out a two-strand approach. The first strand, to be reported on in the autumn, concerned the costs and funding of water and sewerage services. The second strand of the review, covering the structures and governance necessary to deliver water and sewerage services, will be reported on in December.
Following receipt of the independent panel’s strand one report on 1 October, I consulted the Committee for Regional Development and the other statutory partners, and briefed trade union representatives. I am grateful to all those to whom I spoke for their constructive comments and for the speed with which they made written contributions. I must pay particular tribute to the Chairperson, Deputy Chairperson and members of the Regional Development Committee for their constructive approach.
The report and the comments of the consultees were discussed by a subcommittee established by the Executive to oversee the process. The subcommittee, comprising the Finance and Personnel, Employment and Learning, and Social Development Ministers and me, met on 15 October. A further discussion involving the full Executive took place on 18 October.
Before turning to what has been decided, I must also pay tribute to Paddy Hillyard, who has chaired the independent panel with great commitment and integrity. He has been admirably supported by Joan Whiteside, Charles Coulthard and Professor John Fitzgerald. Through the collective application of their knowledge and experience, they have produced a report that offers us an opportunity to reform our water and sewerage services in a better way than that proposed by direct rule Ministers. The panel has taken great care in its work, and the report bears careful reading.
I particularly want to draw attention to Paddy Hillyard’s foreword. Referring to the floods that caused so much hardship in June, he concludes:
“we need to reduce our carbon footprint and develop sustainable ways of delivering clean water and disposing of our sewerage. As a society, we will have to pay more in the short term to achieve these objectives: but we must do so for the sake of future generations.”
That is an important message that we must not and cannot duck. We were elected because our people had had enough of being governed from a distance. We were elected because people had confidence in our ability to take hard decisions on their behalf. Now that we have been elected, we must repay that trust by having the courage and commitment to make those hard choices.
Turning to the report, the Executive have welcomed the finding that ratepayers have paid a substantial annual contribution towards the cost of water and sewerage services. The panel found no evidence that the change in the rules in 1998 that removed the direct link between the regional rate and water and sewerage services was ever properly explained to the public. That vindicates the position that all the local parties took during direct rule.
The Executive have accepted the recommendation that, from 2008-09, there should be full recognition that domestic regional rates revenue makes a contribution to the funding of water and sewerage services. The panel has estimated that amount, based on an uplift of the 1998 position to today’s prices, at around £109 million. That equates to an average household contribution of around £160. That figure is consistent with the Finance Minister’s own projections of what domestic ratepayers are contributing to the funding of water and sewerage services. In 2008-09, that will be the only household contribution to those services, the balance being paid from the Northern Ireland block grant. That represents the Executive’s commitment to tackling the inequity of double charging.
The review report notes, however, that the revenue from the regional rate does not cover the full costs of water services. To deal with that, the report proposes that consumers should make an increased contribution to cover the costs of water and sewerage services. The report makes the case that, without the uplift of what people currently contribute, other public services will be deprived of funding. The Executive have recognised that and agreed that, from 2009-10, there will need to be additional contributions from householders. The panel has suggested that these additional contributions should come into effect in full for domestic households from 2009-10. We have concluded instead that they should be phased in, with domestic households paying two thirds of their full liability in 2009-10 and the full liability the following year. However, the amount due to be collected from domestic households will be reduced by the amount of the contribution that households already make via the rates: £109 million, or an average of £160 per rates bill. That means that there will be no double payment.
The Executive have noted the proposal that a single bill should be issued to consumers, with rates and water and sewerage charges separately identified. Further analysis by the Regional Development and Finance Departments will be necessary in order to determine how that might be done and to assess the implications for existing billing arrangements and contracts.
The Executive have also noted the panel’s recommendations on the way in which payments for services should be made in the future, but have reserved their final decision until the panel has completed the second strand of its report. The panel will have more to say in its second report on the detail of affordability arrangements for vulnerable groups. All that has been agreed now is that additional contributions from households will be necessary from 2009-10, but that there will be robust arrangements to protect the vulnerable in society from hardship and water poverty.
The proposals put forward by the direct rule Administration entailed the extension of water charges to all non-domestic customers, the phasing out of the current domestic allowance and the introduction of sewerage charges for all non-domestic customers. For 2008-09, that would have entailed charges of two thirds of the full level. However, the Executive recognise the challenges and difficulties faced by the non-domestic sector and have decided to phase in the new charges more slowly at 50% of the full charge in 2008-09 and 100% in 2009-10.
The Executive will also endeavour to reduce the burden on consumers, both domestic and non-domestic, through delivering efficiencies and by attracting further revenue sources.
In conclusion, the Executive have been committed to not privatising water and sewerage services and to tackling the injustice of double taxation. On behalf of the Executive, I am happy to reiterate that commitment today and to confirm that it is from that standpoint that we have considered the report of the independent panel. The position that I outline today, on behalf of the Executive, provides a firm basis for delivering a better deal for all water customers than that proposed by the direct rule Administration. There is, however, a great deal of work to be done by the Executive, the independent panel, the Committee for Regional Development and all the stakeholders. With goodwill and commitment from all parties, I am confident that we will achieve our goal of better services at an affordable cost. Go raibh míle maith agat.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr Cobain): I thank the Minister for his statement. The Committee has written to the Department to say that, in its scrutiny of the report, it finds that there is insufficient information in the review for the Committee to be able to form a view on it. Until the Committee sees the second report of the panel in December 2007, no final decision can be taken by it.
For the Minister to announce today the introduction of water charges without any debate in the Assembly is absolutely ridiculous. It is a new tax, and there is no indication of the basis on which the tax will be charged or of how much will be collected by those charges. There is no doubt that tens of thousands of those people on the lowest incomes will be worse off and will face water poverty. That is what has been announced today.
Will the Minister give a guarantee to the House that individuals who at the moment are free from any charges through the regional rate will not be any worse off when water charges are introduced?
Mr Murphy: I thank the Chairperson for his question. I must note that the Committee welcomed the report as an important first step in dealing with the issues, particularly those that he outlined with regard to the vulnerable and the less well off. It is, of course, open to the Chairperson and to any other Member if they wish to debate the issue and bring a motion to the Floor of the House. If the Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee were to do so, it would be particularly relevant. I am quite happy to debate any such motion.
I am obliged, under the programme that was outlined and agreed with the Committee and other stakeholders, to make a statement to the House following the Executive’s decision on the budgetary implications of the panel’s first report. The Chairperson knows well that the members of the panel — particularly the chairman, Paddy Hillyard — are people with great experience in dealing with issues of water poverty, who know how the imposition of the direct rule proposals would have affected the most vulnerable in our society. They have undertaken, as part of the second strand of their report, to focus on affordability issues and on how such propositions might be mitigated to ensure that those who are least able to pay do not suffer. I fully expect the panel to bring forward very robust propositions, and I expect the Executive to concur with them.
The direct rule proposals, as we have said from the outset, were unfair and unjust and would have imposed a double taxation on people. This Executive set the panel a job to do and have endorsed its key recommendations. I believe that we are tackling the injustices of privatisation and double charging, and we will ensure that those who are least able to pay are protected in whatever measures are recommended in the second report.
Mr Wells: Is the Minister aware that a motion has been put forward in the name of the Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development to debate this very important issue? It would have been preferable had that debate been held before his statement on the decision. Will the Minister accept that some of what he has told the Assembly today is predicated on a very stretching efficiency target of 40% having been set for Northern Ireland Water? Has he taken into account, in the figures that he gave us today, that that is an extremely difficult target, which it may not be possible to meet?
Furthermore, the major item of the review panel’s report was that future payments should be based on the capital valuation of the individual’s property. Will the Minister accept that that proposal will cause enormous problems to those who are asset rich but income poor and that it will simply repeat the earlier problems when it was proposed that rating should also be based on capital valuation? With regard to the review panel’s second report, will he assure the House that adequate protection is built into any proposal for an affordability tariff to ensure that those who are unable to pay do not bear an unfair brunt of this new tax?
Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for his question, and I note that a motion for debate has been put forward. The method for rolling out the process was discussed with the Committee for Regional Development, and I outlined my intention to make a statement following the Executive’s decision. At that stage, there was no mention of a debate; however, I am happy to come to the House and debate the issues with members of the Committee.
The targets concerning efficiencies are demanding. One implication of the Executive’s decision to roll out progressively the possible domestic contribution gives an additional year to reach some of those targets. Therefore, there may be scope for discussing them with the water company.
On many occasions, I have heard Mr Wells’s points on those who are asset rich and income poor, and there is a debate on basing contributions on the capital valuation of houses. As part of the second phase, the panel has undertaken a particularly focused exercise in relation to affordability and will look in particular at how its proposals will impact on those least able to make a contribution. There will be an opportunity for the Committee, and any other party or individual Member, to discuss those propositions with the panel. I expect the panel to bring forward robust propositions in December, and those will be debated by the Executive and by the House.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo chuid buíochas a thabhairt don Aire do a ráiteas agus ár gcuid buíochas don Roinn don chuid oibre atá déanta aici. I thank the Minister for his statement and put on record Sinn Féin’s appreciation of the review panel’s work. It is an important and positive first step in the rolling back of the proposals of direct rule Ministers. Will the Minister assure the Assembly that the misuse of the regional rate will never happen again? Furthermore, I ask him to reassure the House that the implementation of the report will herald the end of paying twice for water and an end to water poverty.
Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for his question. The Executive’s statement, when they had agreed the panel’s terms of reference, was very clear. One of the issues that had poisoned the direct rule propositions on water were — if Members will pardon the pun — suspicions about the privatisation of water and sewerage services. Moreover, people felt that the contribution historically made by households through the regional rate was not recognised in what they were being asked to contribute for water and sewerage services and that their having to pay twice was deeply unjust.
The review panel’s report and the decisions taken by all the Ministers in the Executive address those concerns. The issue of privatisation was dealt with from the outset, and all the parties expressed manifesto commitments to tackling the injustice of a double taxation for water. That issue has been addressed, will continue to be addressed and will not reappear on the agenda.
Mr Dallat: I too welcome the Minister’s statement, particularly his undertaking to support the Committee’s tabling a motion for a take-note debate and its seeking an assurance that he will be influenced by the outcome of that debate.
I note that the Minister has not referred to metering. Does that mean that he agrees with the panel that, although metering is an environmental issue, it would increase the cost of water considerably but have no real benefit for those who can least afford to pay?
Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for his comments and for his welcome of the panel’s report.
I firmly believe that metering will have to be debated publicly over the next few weeks and months. It will certainly have to be discussed in the lead-up to the publication of the second phase of the panel’s reports. There are issues to discuss: for example, some people assume that capital value is an unfair means by which an assessment can be made, and that metering is fairer. Metering was very much part of the direct rule propositions, but I suppose that it must have got lost among them.
Several parties, including the Member’s and my own, had concerns about metering. It is assumed that it will lead to greater water conservation and reduced water charges. All those assumptions can be challenged. I look forward to talking about the matter over the coming weeks and months, and perhaps the take-note debate that the Member mentioned would be a useful place to start such discussions. I have asked other stakeholders to discuss metering in the few weeks and months that lead up to the publication of the panel’s second-phase report.
A debate on the matter is necessary, given that several challengeable assumptions were made about metering, such as what it can contribute to the environment, the reduction to bills for water and sewerage services that it will cause, and its tendency towards encouraging water conservation. All those assumptions can be challenged, and I look forward to that take-note debate.
The Executive have not taken a view on that position. However, they can — and I expect that they will — do so when the second phase of the panel’s report is published in December.
Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for his statement. However, it is premature, given that the Assembly has not had the opportunity to debate the outcome of the report. However, I am at least grateful that the Minister was able to clarify that we have a situation in which a Minister is speaking on behalf of the Executive.
Does the Minister not agree that any charge that is linked to the value of property is, by definition, a regressive form of taxation? Does he further agree that, even with affordability adjustments, vulnerable groups and those who are on fixed incomes, and whose house prices are rising, will be hit? Will he comment on how the proposals meet the requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive, which is aimed at encouraging the conservation of natural resources?
Mr Murphy: The reason for my statement on the review is that the Executive’s discussions on the Budget have meant that they had to make several key decisions; Members will know that such key budgetary decisions must be made this week. Therefore, there was real pressure on the Department. We announced at the start of the process that there would be a two-phase review, one of which would deal with the clear financial implications of the panel’s recommendations.
As a result, we had to make decisions this week on how we would proceed with paying for water and sewerage services over the next few years. Therefore, the time frame for discussing the matter was constrained. We acknowledged that at the outset, and that is the reason that we held discussions with the Committee for Regional Development, in particular. Obviously, the parties that are represented on the Executive speak for the majority of Assembly Members, although I appreciate that they do not do so for those on whose behalf Mrs Long is speaking. Therefore, the time frame in which we could have held meetings was constrained. However, such constraint was necessary, given that decisions had to be made.
The Member mentioned bigger issues such as capital values and metering. We will now have the opportunity to debate those in the House. The panel made it clear that the second phase of the report will examine very closely affordability and how an increased contribution from domestic consumers towards water and sewerage services can be mitigated in order that the worst off do not suffer as a result of the charges. As I said, the panel comprises people who have a broad range of experience — particularly the chairperson — on matters that relate to water poverty. I am confident that the panel, in engagement with the parties that have an interest in the matter and with all the other stakeholders, will draw up robust affordability propositions that the Executive can consider and that the Assembly can decide on.
Mr Moutray: Given that many thousands of senior citizens throughout Northern Ireland have indicated that they wish to have water meters installed in their homes, will the Minister give an assurance that that option will still be available to those people who are over the age of 60 who wish to avail themselves of it?
Mr Murphy: That option is enshrined in current legislation, and it is to that legislation that the water company operates. Until the Executive decide otherwise and introduce their own legislation, that will remain the case. The Executive must decide whether they wish to pursue a different objective for pensioners, and it would be up to the House to agree any new legislation.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement and the review panel for its strand one report. Can the Minister assure us that the panel will have adequate resources to complete strand two, given that the original consultants had £7 million with which to carry out their review?
Mr Murphy: The panel has been allocated a sufficient budget in order to carry out its work, and I appreciate the fact that the panel was allocated that budget. Great credit is due to the panel: we gave it an onerous task, which it got down to very quickly. Panel members applied themselves, with great integrity, to their work.
A budget was set aside that we considered sufficient. The fact that the panel has yet to eat significantly into that budget shows that it has sufficient resources to carry out the remainder of its task.
Mr G Robinson: Does the Minister feel that to levy water rates based on the value of a property alone is a fair system? Does it take into account people’s ability to pay?
Mr Murphy: I beg your pardon, Mr Speaker, but I did not hear the Member’s question. If he repeats it, I shall answer it.
Mr G Robinson: Does the Minister feel that to levy water rates based on the value of a property alone is a fair system? Does it take into account people’s ability to pay?
Mr Murphy: The panel looked very hard at the issue and considered payments based on that system to be fairest. The Executive had to make a number of decisions about the panel’s budget and about how that would roll out over the next number of years. The Executive have not concluded the discussion on the issue that the Member has raised. They will discuss the matter further with the panel and with other interested parties.
Naomi Long is still in the Chamber; I thought that she had left. Mr Speaker, I neglected to deal with a point that she raised about the EU Water Framework Directive. Article 9 of the directive says that pricing policies should promote a sustainable use of water. The panel’s proposals will enable us to achieve that aim.
Mr McCallister: In the light of his saying that he does not want a double taxation, does the Minister accept that households that have a private well and a septic tank would be paying for a service that they do not receive? I refer particularly to farming families. Considering that they will be paying a standing charge for the use of a water meter anyway, will the Minister guarantee that such families, and their businesses, will be allowed to pay using a meter after he removes their domestic allowance?
Mr Murphy: The Member may be straying into areas that will be dealt with in the strand-two report. Suffice it to say that we wanted the fairest proposition for all customers, both domestic and non-domestic. The Executive were very keen for some of the savings that have been identified in the panel’s report to be spread between domestic and non-domestic customers. We are looking at ways in which to reduce the burden right across the board.
Therefore, some of the affordability issues that the Member has raised into the specifics of non-domestic use must be looked at, because we do not want to ignore one section of our community, in particular the farming sector. We are straying into what will be considered in the strand two report, but I look forward to hearing the Member’s views when that analysis kicks off.
Mr O’Loan: I notice that, in his statement, the Minister accepts the panel’s figure of £109 million already being built into the rates to cover water charges. That figure equates to £160 for each household. Those calculations go back to a time when an hypothecated figure for water was included in our rates.
A lot has happened in the meantime, including an increase of as much as 19% in one year in the regional rate. Will the Minister ensure that there is independent analysis of that figure before he commits to it? It may well be that a greater figure ought to be built into the calculation.
Mr Murphy: I consider the panel to be independent assessors. The figure it came up with concurs with that proposed by the Department of Finance and Personnel, as regards expressing the 1998 figure in today’s values. Therefore, I assume that it is accurate. The fact that the panel, which is independent and outside Government, came up with the same figure gives us confidence in it. That is not just my analysis. Last Thursday, the Executive agreed that that is the figure that will be considered as part of the contribution.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister assure the House that moneys gained from the sale of surplus assets already identified will be reinvested in the water infrastructure?
Mr Murphy: Assets should be disposed of in order to maximise benefits to customers. We will ask the regulator to undertake a review of the assets of the water company. I note that the Committee for Regional Development, on which the Member sits, observed that it is not in anyone’s interest to indulge in a fire sale. Nonetheless, it is important that surplus assets are disposed of properly and that the resulting money is reinvested in public services.
Mr Irwin: I have problems regarding the levels of water wastage through system deficiencies. Will the Minister give an assurance that every effort will be made to deal with that problem?
Mr Murphy: The water company needs to address water wastage. When talking about water metering and the volume of water that households use, some Members observed that there was a primary responsibility on the water company to ensure that wastage was addressed. The company has set out a programme to achieve that and is on course for substantial improvement. However, we will need to keep an eye on that. I have no doubt that the panel will examine the issue closely during the second phase of its assessment. The Department is keen to ensure that the water company lives up to the expectations of the public, the Assembly and the Department and that it will address the issues seriously.
Mr Beggs: The Minister has referred to article 9 of the EU Water Framework Directive. Will he explain how basing charges for water on house values will encourage conservation? I do not see how it will. Has he received written confirmation from the European Commission that it is willing to accept basing charges for water on house values? In my opinion, it is a breach of the European directive.
Mr Murphy: The Department has its own analysis of the EU Water Framework Directive, which is that it is not necessarily in breach of any European directive. Further discussions about what may come from Europe on that matter are ongoing.
The Member assumes that the only way of conserving water is through a metered system. There are contrary views: there are other ways to conserve water and encourage the conservation of water. It is appropriate that, in the coming weeks and months, we have a debate about what people presume to be the benefits of metering — water conservation, lower bills and contribution to the environment — as opposed to other measures, which may also encourage water conservation.
Mr Durkan: I welcome the Minister’s statement and join him in paying tribute to the work of the panel. My party was the only one to make a submission to the panel and to meet with it.
I return to the point raised by my colleague Declan O’Loan. The Minister’s statement says that the amount estimated from the regional rate to contribute to water and sewerage services is around £109 million, which equates to a household contribution of £160, and is based on an uplift of the 1998 position to today’s prices. I ask the Minister and the Executive to address the fact that the increases of 7% in three successive years, introduced by direct rule Ministers in the late 1990s, were justified entirely on the basis of increasing water costs. The 19% increase last year was justified in similar terms. There is, therefore, reason to question that figure.
Can the Minister assure the House that the measures that will be taken on affordability will not be temporary? Under direct rule, the indication was that the Treasury would do away with the affordability tariff after a few years. Similarly, although the Minister has given the right assurances on privatisation, is he aware of Treasury plans to pursue and press for subsequent privatisation? What assurances can he give the House on that?
Mr Murphy: I will repeat my previous response: the panel is independent. It approached its review from outside the Department. It was important, when it was established, for the panel to be given independence from Government in order to allow it to carry out the necessary scrutiny. It employed economists to assist in its analysis, which concurs with the figure that the Department of Finance and Personnel provided.
Robust work must be done on the affordability tariff. The panel contained people who have a strong knowledge of water poverty and how it can affect the most vulnerable in society. The Assembly has a duty to protect those vulnerable people. It must ensure that people can make increased contributions in order to meet the necessary investment in water services. People have accepted the panel’s assertion that if the money were to be taken from the Budget, that would have severe implications across all Departments. Therefore, the proposition is that those services must be paid for through increased contributions. The Assembly has a duty to ensure that that does not adversely affect those who can least afford it.
The Department had to make a clear statement on privatisation even before the panel had started its work, because part of that work was to bring a degree of public confidence to the discussions that had not previously been present. The panel members are people of integrity, and it is a great credit to them that they have managed to achieve a degree of public confidence in how they are dealing with the issue. As long as I am the Minster for Regional Development, it is my intention, and that of the Executive as long as they are in position, that privatisation will not, and never will be, back on the agenda. I expect that that will continue to be the position and that any attempt by the British Treasury to revisit the exercise will be resisted accordingly.
Mr B Wilson: I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the fact that there will be no separate water charges. However, I am concerned about the figures for 2008-09. It appears that there may be a black hole in the figures and that additional revenue can be raised only through a large increase in the regional rate. That is unacceptable. Rates are aggressive, and no account is taken of ability to pay. The burden falls heaviest on pensioners and people who are on fixed incomes. Therefore, can the Minster assure the House that there will not be any increase in the regional rate to meet any shortfall, and that any shortfall would not be met through cuts in other services?
Mr Murphy: The Member has asked a question that strikes me as being rather contradictory. If a shortfall is not picked up by the customer or by the Department, where does he expect it to be picked up? He cannot take both sides of the argument at the same time. He has asked that I ensure that neither the public nor Departments have to pay for the shortfall. Does he expect Santa Claus to come along and pay for it in the interim?
If Members want to approach the debate rationally, they must be honest and upfront. How can a service not be paid for either by Departments or through the proposition that the shortfall be met by the block grant for 2008-09? That has implications for Departments, and how could it not? Therefore, we must be upfront and honest, which I have tried to be in the debate, about the difficult choices that are to be faced and must be taken. Those who try to play both sides of the argument at the same time will be exposed as not having a sensible argument for the way forward.
Dr McDonnell: The Minster has rightly said that there will be robust arrangements to protect the vulnerable in our society from hardship and water poverty. Can he guide the House on what those robust arrangements might be? I accept that Santa Claus will not pay for any shortfall. However, last night, a letter was posted through my door from Mr Howard McKeown, who is a retired civil servant. It is an impassioned and pleading letter in which Mr McKeown says that he will be forced to leave his home because of water charges and rates.
I return to the point that, while there are those at the bottom end of our society economically who are in hardship and who need to be protected, equally there are those on the other side of the coin who may be asset-rich — living in a highly rated house — but living on meagre pensions, like that man on his Civil Service pension. Are we going to ask him to leave his home as those charges build up? It is a challenge for the Assembly to try to keep our society stable and — whatever way the charges are introduced, whatever way water is paid for — to ensure that people do not have to lose their homes. What answer can I give to Mr McKeown as I sit down this afternoon, or tomorrow, to write him a letter?
Mr Murphy: Far be it from me to compose the Member’s letters for him. Perhaps the central point in my statement — and I am surprised that it has not been picked up before — was that affordability tariffs will, of course, have to be considered in a robust fashion. That is part of the second phase. The report recognises, and the Executive recognise, that there was a historic contribution being made from the rates towards water and sewerage services. That contribution has been recognised and accepted. That means that, when that contribution goes towards water and sewerage services, the rates bill will fall by the measure of that contribution. I presume that when people have read the report, they will recognise that as a central factor. The fact that the Executive have taken that decision is very welcome.
I heard other people talking on the radio — including some people who are sitting in the Chamber today — about the propositions in the report, and they had got the sums completely the wrong way round. The rates will be reduced by the contribution that has been made over the years towards water and sewerage services. I fully accept what the Member has said: we have a responsibility for ensuring that, as we struggle to finance necessary investment in water and sewerage services — and all the other programmes that the Executive must try to find money for — that does not impinge in a negative fashion on those who are least able to afford to pay. That is a challenge for us all. It will pose a challenge to us throughout the Budget discussions and the second phase of the panel’s work. Nevertheless, it is a challenge that we are well capable of meeting, because people here have a genuine concern about those who are least able to pay in our society. We have a duty to protect them.
Dr Farry: Further to the answer given to my colleague Mr Wilson, I remind the Minister that the financial situation inherited by the Administration made no provision for water charges within the rates — on the contrary, there were to be separate water charges. Therefore, there is a financial black hole that has to be addressed. Will the Minister be straight with the public of Northern Ireland and tell them that the only way in which those costs can be met is by a subsequent rise in the regional rate or a cut in public services? Otherwise, the sums simply do not add up.
Mr Murphy: It is interesting that Dr Farry talks about the sums adding up. He is the person whom I heard on BBC radio getting the sums completely and utterly wrong. He talked about £160 being added to the regional rate bill, rather than recognising that £160 would be taken off the average regional rate bill. He is not in any position to lecture us about the sums. When he was on ‘The Stephen Nolan Show’ pontificating on the matter, I was tempted to ring in myself. However, I was obliged not to comment publicly on the report until the Executive had dealt with it. I was tempted to ask Dr Farry to go back and read the report properly and to do his sums properly.
The central feature of the issue is that there is a recognition that people paid for water — that they made a contribution towards water — out of the regional rate bill. That will be accepted and recognised. If that is moved towards a contribution to water, the regional rate bill will fall accordingly.
Review of Recruitment in Speciality Medical Training
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): On 22 May, I commissioned a review of the problems that were encountered as a result of the recruitment process for junior doctors into speciality training. Many of you are familiar with the well-publicised difficulties that centred on the use of the national online recruitment process, the medical training application service (MTAS). That process was heavily criticised across the UK as it was felt to exclude highly qualified candidates from successful appointment. In addition, there were widespread concerns that the new process would lead to hundreds of junior doctors’ being unemployed and that, as a result, hospitals would be thrown into crisis.
Further, it was predicted that hundreds of doctors would be permanently locked out of speciality training and left in limbo.
As a result of those concerns, I took urgent action to address the problems locally. The first step was the abandonment of the MTAS process. We then secured consultant commitment to extending the local interviews process to complete recruitment as a matter of urgency. Later, I will detail how those concerns have been fully addressed.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
On 22 May, I made a commitment to a full examination of all the difficulties arising from the recruitment process. I set up a review and asked Professor Randall Hayes of Queen’s University to chair the review group, to look at the difficulties and to chart a way forward. The review group drew its membership from across the Health Service, the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Department, thereby reflecting a wide range of backgrounds and expertise. In keeping with my commitment to report back to the Assembly before the end of October 2007, I have today placed in the Assembly Library copies of the Review of Recruitment into Speciality Training in Northern Ireland 2007.
As Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I wanted to be assured that patient care had not suffered because of the deficiencies in this process; that our Health Service continued to operate safely and effectively at the traditional junior doctor start date of 1 August; and that a way forward for 2008 would be determined involving a recruitment process that enjoyed widespread confidence throughout the service and, locally, from the medical profession. I also asked Professor Hayes to examine the wider concerns that arose from the recruitment process, the perceived inflexibilities of the new training programmes and the effectiveness of medical workforce planning. I was also keen that he took account of developments elsewhere in the UK, including the Independent Review of Modernising Medical Careers, which is currently being carried out by Sir John Tooke.
The review team was set a challenging timescale. It met and took evidence from all key stakeholders over the summer months. Professor Hayes met Sir John Tooke, who, on 8 October, published the interim findings of his review of modernising medical careers. I want to express my gratitude to Professor Hayes for his leadership, to the review team for their commitment to completing this review in a short time, and to those who gave of their time and expertise in contributing to the work of the review.
The report contains 29 separate recommendations under the following headings: recruitment, speciality training and medical workforce planning. I want to outline today the main findings and the actions that I will take. First, the review found no evidence of any detrimental impact on patient care. Nearly 700 junior doctors with the necessary skills and expertise to provide high-quality treatment and care were recruited and in post by 1 August 2007.
Secondly, there was no significant unemployment of junior doctors. On 1 August, only 22 doctors had not secured posts. That figure has now fallen to six, and arrangements have been made to allow those six doctors to remain in post pending further recruitment rounds. Thirdly, Professor Hayes’s review addressed the inflexibility in the process that could result in highly qualified doctors being locked out of the process.
Nevertheless, significant flaws in the process have been identified. They relate mainly to the online recruitment system, the application form and the shortlisting process used this year. The evidence that the review took from junior doctors detailed difficulties around the lack of robustness of the computer system, which was prone to crashing. Also mentioned was insufficient training to familiarise doctors with a radically different process, and the fact that shortlisting did not take enough account of individual experiences.
In addressing those matters, 18 of the review’s recommendations cover the recruitment process, setting out advice in regard to person specifications, application forms, interviews and communication. I will supply a little more detail on those recommendations. There will be a local recruitment process for 2008. Junior doctors will complete a different style of application form that will allow them an opportunity to have all their experience taken into account. The person specifications, which caused so many problems in relation to inflexibility and concerns over permanent lockout from the process, will be revised to remove limits to previous experience, and they will be speciality specific.
Junior doctors will not apply through a national computer system. Applications will be submitted to the local deanery — the Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency. There will be local longlisting and shortlisting of candidates. The interview process that was used in 2007 was well received by all junior doctors and by the consultants who conducted the interviews. That process will continue for 2008. The concerns that junior doctors had this year, should, therefore, not be repeated in 2008. They will be allowed to demonstrate experience and how they strive for excellence. Those important areas will be taken into account in the shortlisting process.
There has been widespread agreement among junior doctors and training committees that the recruitment process in Northern Ireland should remain synchronised with the national timetable. Having listened to the profession, I concur that we should remain part of the national network in relation to timescales. Recruitment for general practice will continue to follow a separate process, but I want the timing of offers of training places to coincide with those for speciality training in line with Professor Hayes’s recommendation. The number of offers to general practice doctors awaiting alternative offers caused difficulties this year. Undue pressure was brought to bear, which is something that I want to avoid next year.
All of these changes will be communicated to junior doctors by the Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency. The agency has been examining the feasibility of a local online application service to support the recruitment process. As I told the Assembly in May 2007, I want to be assured that any such service would truly support the process before agreeing to its use, but I am content that such an option should be explored.
Professor Hayes has made it clear that his recommendations on speciality training have to be viewed in the wider context, and for very good reasons. We must not do anything locally that disadvantages our young doctors with regard to recognition of their training and qualifications and, as a consequence, jeopardises their future prospects for consultant and GP principal appointments. As a result, the review’s recommendations on specialist training are for the longer term, for 2009 and beyond, and are very much dependent on the outcome of Sir John Tooke’s recommendations.
As I said, Sir John’s interim findings were published at the beginning of last week and are out for consultation until 20 November 2007. His proposals for speciality training involve the fundamental restructuring of postgraduate medical training to allow greater flexibility. My Department will respond to that consultation, drawing on Professor Randal Hayes’s work. However, I assure those who secured a place on a training programme in 2007 that that commitment will be honoured.
Many of the recommendations on medical workforce planning are already in train. Since August 2007, for example, the number of doctors in GP training programmes has increased by 20%. As a result, the intake to GP training has risen to 65. Again this year, recognising the growing number of women in the medical workforce, flexible training opportunities will be doubled to 15 to begin to meet the growing demand for part-time working among doctors in training. Although that is a relatively small increase, it should be seen as the latest step in an ongoing approach.
A further critical element in this process is the provision of careers advice that is objective, meaningful and of relevance to young doctors at a critical stage in their career. My Department has provided funds to the Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency to develop its career advisory role. The agency recently advertised a post dedicated to that role, in line with Professor Hayes’s recommendations. I want to see the agency work with the university to extend that role into the undergraduate years in a meaningful way.
In summary, the review has identified that there was no evidence of a detriment to patient and client care caused by the recruitment process used this year. There is no evidence of significant unemployment of junior doctors.
There were significant flaws in the recruitment process for speciality, run-through training. A way forward for 2008 allows experience to be taken into account, prevents doctors from being locked out of training, and introduces more flexibility to the process. Proposals will be introduced with the aim of restoring the confidence of the service in speciality recruitment.
A great deal of work is to be done as a result of the review. I have set out, in broad terms, the approach that the Department will adopt for this year. The Department will put in place a process to implement in detail all the local review recommendations. Further work will be necessary for 2009 and beyond. Sir John Tooke’s interim report points to fundamental changes to speciality recruitment that were identified by Professor Hayes. My Department will work closely with other UK countries over the coming months to ensure that a process is developed that meets the needs of the service and allows junior doctors to compete fairly and flexibly. We all want to be cared for by doctors who are trained to the highest standards and who are experts in their area of practice. The profession can provide that service if the right people are recruited into the right speciality. I am determined that the professionalism and dedication that is shown by doctors locally is not let down by a poor recruitment process.
Mr Buchanan: I welcome the Minister’s statement on the problems that have been encountered. It is good that the review of the speciality training for junior doctors is underway and that there has been no detrimental impact on patient care.
I also welcome the fact that 700 junior doctors were recruited by 1 April 2007. Can the Minister confirm whether salaries paid to doctors who are being trained under the new MMC (Modernising Medical Careers) scheme are less than those that have been paid in previous years?
Mr McGimpsey: I am not aware whether the salaries are lower; I did not expect that question. Although I can check specifics, I am not aware that junior doctors are suffering as a result of being paid lower salaries than they would have been in previous years.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate the Minister on his statement. All parties had been lobbying on the matter, and I am glad that he has taken all the issues on board. Will the Minister give a commitment to honour the places of people who have secured a place on a speciality training programme in 2007?
Mr McGimpsey: I can give Mrs O’Neill exactly that commitment: those training places will all be honoured in full.
Mr McCallister: I am grateful to the Minister for his statement and for honouring his commitment to report to the House by the end of October. Does he agree that the experiences of a great number of junior doctors were stressful? Will he indicate the timescale of the process for the next year, bearing in mind that the Tooke Review has just been published?
Mr McGimpsey: I understand the stress that junior doctors experienced during the early part of this year. However, as I said, the Department adopted a local solution to a local problem and dealt with the situation. No junior doctors were unemployed, and there was no chaos in the hospitals.
The recruitment process opens in January 2008 with local interviews, which will be completed by the middle of April. Job offers will be issued shortly after that. That is the anticipated timeframe, and I expect that the Department will meet it.
Mrs Hanna: I also thank the Minister for his statement and for bringing the matter back to the Assembly. Given that he has talked frequently about the local situation, will a system be introduced that has been tailored to the Northern Ireland service?
The Minister has made it clear that the process will not be exclusive to Northern Ireland. Will he elaborate on that, and will the balance between supply and demand be ensured?
Mr McGimpsey: Overwhelmingly, the advice received during the course of the review was that the process in Northern Ireland must be synchronised with, and be part of, a national process. It is a local solution to a local problem, but it is also an integral part of the general recruitment pool. As I understand it, Professor Tooke’s review will indicate the way forward for England, Scotland and Wales, and my Department will carefully examine the outcome. Professor Hayes has had meetings with Professor Tooke. Randal Hayes’s recommendations are close to some of those of Professor Tooke.
Mrs Hanna asked me about supply and demand, and, as I indicated in my statement, there has been an increase to 686 in the number of GP training posts this year. That increase reflects the need for additional GPS and for planning for medical careers. Among that number, any decrease in training places for certain specialities is balanced by an increase in training for other specialities. Overall, the number of available training places has increased
Dr Deeny: I thank and commend the Minister for dealing with the problem so quickly and professionally. As a doctor, I had two major concerns: my primary concern was patient care, and, secondly, I was concerned about the loss of young doctors from Northern Ireland.
The Minister stated that the Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency will communicate all changes to junior doctors. When will that happen? I suggest that it should be as soon as possible, so that Northern Ireland does not lose its highly skilled and qualified professionals.
Almost 60 GPs work in the Western Health and Social Services Board area. Bearing in mind that many of our medical graduates are female, I suggest that the number of GP training places be further increased, perhaps to 100 eventually.
Mr McGimpsey: As I indicated in my statement, there are an additional 15 GP training places this year, and the Department will carefully consider any future requirement. Now that the review is complete and I have reported to the House, I am now in a position to begin communication with junior doctors, and I will do so as soon as possible. A number of the recommendations can be communicated almost straight away, and that will be done through the local deanery.
There is no evidence that the process will be the cause of any detriment to patient care. The Department was able to move quickly enough to ensure that hospitals were able to recruit their complement of junior doctors on 1 August, as normal.
The training of doctors in specialities is a competitive process. Since the process began, local doctors have chosen to leave Northern Ireland to complete their training. That happens as a matter of course, and there is no guarantee that an individual who starts his or her undergraduate training in Northern Ireland will finish it here. Of the posts filled on 1 August, three quarters were filled by local doctors and one quarter by non-local doctors, by which I mean doctors from other EU countries and further afield. Last year, 87 international medical graduates were in the system, and I record the Department’s gratitude for their work in supporting the Health Service.
Doctors who were born in Northern Ireland can be found working in hospitals almost all over the world, and that has always been the case, because it is a matter of individual preference. It is crucial to have flexibility in the system, so that doctors can return to Northern Ireland if they so wish.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I welcome the Minister’s statement on the recruitment of junior doctors, and I apologise for missing the first part of it. This issue greatly concerned members of the Health Committee earlier this year, and we raised it with the Minister many times. The Minister acknowledged that there were flaws in the process for recruitment in speciality medical training. Those flaws caused months of untold anxiety for many junior doctors throughout Northern Ireland. However, I welcome the assurance from the review that there was no evidence of any detrimental impact on patient care. I am pleased to learn that major changes will made in time for next year’s recruitment process and, in particular, that a different style of application process will be used that will give greater weight to previous experience.
The Minister has confirmed to Dr Deeny that there is much work to be done and that the full implementation of the review recommendations will be carried out without delay. However, I wish to seek further assurance that we will not be faced with a similar situation in the future.
Mr McGimpsey: Much of last year’s problems related to the MTAS recruitment process, which was an online application form that was accessed through a computer system that was prone to crashing. There is no anticipation that we will go back to that system. We will follow the same steps for 2008 that we took in 2007 when we abandoned MTAS: local interviews, longlisting, shortlisting and curriculum vitaes will play a part. Therefore, experience will be given its appropriate weight. I do not anticipate that the position will be similar in May 2008 to what it was in May 2006. In fact, as I stated in an earlier answer, I expect that offers will be issued at the end of April 2008.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank and commend the Minister for his robust response, and I look forward to the same robustness when we consider the Agenda for Change policy. Will the Minister outline whether the Department has made any attempts to encourage speciality training? I am thinking specifically of areas where there are gaps, for example, in the field of reconstructive surgery for breast cancer survivors and burns victims, and in the provision of mental-health care. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McGimpsey: That is a matter of preference and of competition. Some courses are oversubscribed, for example, cardiology is consistently the number-one speciality to which young doctors apply. Regrettably, near the bottom of the list are accident and emergency, and paediatrics — which has much to do with child-protection legislation. There are disincentives in some specialities, and that is where we meet shortages in areas such as mental health. We have discussed that matter on a number of occasions and, therefore, we are well aware of the shortages of doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses in the mental-health sector. That remains a major problem. I shall keep this matter under constant review so that we can try to find ways to solve the problem.
Mr Easton: I welcome the Minister’s statement. He has broadly answered my question, but will he give us further information on how many junior doctors leave these shores every year? Does he believe that the new measures will help to reduce the numbers of those who leave?
Mr McGimpsey: I do not have figures for the number of junior doctors who leave our shores each year. Some students apply to the School of Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast.
The Department is also aware of the large number of students who apply to other universities. For example, at one stage 10 of the University of Dundee’s rugby team were medical undergraduates from Northern Ireland. There are certain universities that our youngsters are inclined to apply to. I do not have a specific figure, but there is a brain drain. I am happy to write to the Member on the issue of junior doctors’ going abroad. It is something that has been traditional and par for the course in medical training; it has happened for generations.
Mr Elliott: I welcome the Minister’s announcement. He will be aware of representations that I made on the matter locally. Can the Minister assure me that the recruitment process for junior doctors will be administered locally to meet the specific needs of the local hospitals involved?
Mr McGimpsey: Yes, I can. Mr Elliott will recall that, on a number of occasions, I have said that this is a local solution to a local problem. Three quarters of the junior doctors that the Department is recruiting are from Northern Ireland. I bear that very much in mind.
Mr Durkan: I welcome both the Minister’s statement and the work of the review group and Professor Hayes. The report honestly reflects the causes of the problem and provides welcome assurances that its effects did not lead to significant unemployment for our young doctors or damage to patient care.
Although the Minister is trying to ensure that there will be a new system in place that fits local needs, it will also need to fit the national framework. Achieving those two purposes might lead to some tension or difficulty in implementation, so I would appreciate any assurances that he can provide.
Similarly, as well as trying to synchronise the local scheme with the national framework, the Minister is saying that he wants to ensure that recruitment for general practice is synchronised with speciality training. What steps can he take to ensure that that happens?
Mr McGimpsey: Last year, offers for GP speciality were sent to those who may have also been waiting for other specialities and were then left wondering if they would receive any other offers. It is important that all offers be synchronised so that junior doctors can weigh up exactly what they are being offered and what their potential is.
There must be interchange in the national system, because we do not want our junior doctors — when they are qualified and trained — being excluded from employment and professional qualifications simply because they were trained here as opposed to in Scotland, Wales or England. Therefore, it is important that we ensure that our new system fits the national one. Our problem is primarily in how the recruitment took place and the effects of that, which we can sort out. In their discussions, Professor Hayes and Sir John Tooke shared a number of ideas on recommendations. The Department will look at changes to speciality training and how those changes should be implemented. Those changes must be universal, and we cannot exclude ourselves from them.
Mr Ford: I also thank the Minister for his statement and for taking this issue seriously. Immediately after taking office, the Minister met a number of us, and junior doctors, and ensured that we now have at least the makings of a local solution to our local problem. I declare my interest as a parent of two junior doctors in training who both — I am happy to say — secured full training posts in this year’s round. I welcome the Minister’s statement that those training posts will be honoured. I would, however, like to tease out what is not currently in the statement.
The Minister has given us full details of the unemployment of junior doctors, but I am concerned about the underemployment. Will the Minister provide details of how many people are currently only in single-year, short-term, unrecognised posts, because they are the casualties who could be forgotten?
In the context of the Minister’s reference to Professor Hayes’s recommendation about the inflexibility in the process, which could result in highly qualified doctors being locked out, will he tell us a little bit more about how those who have had difficulties this year will be able to regain training posts in future years?
Mr McGimpsey: One of the stipulations of the Hayes Review was that if doctors missed out on training posts for one year, they would not be precluded from applying for the speciality of their choice when they reapplied at the end of the year, thereby ensuring that experience would not count against them.
The position is different when a doctor misses a speciality, but there are other posts available that need to be filled over the next number of months — that happens continually. I cannot give Mr Ford a definitive answer, or numbers, on the underemployment of doctors. I can write to the Member on that, although I am assured that the problem is getting cover for patients, not underemployment of doctors.
Children (Emergency Protection Orders) Bill: First Stage
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I beg leave to introduce to the Assembly a Bill [NIA 6/07] to repeal article 64(8) of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Bill will be put on the list of future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move
That the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007 (S.R. 2007/347) be approved.
I am seeking the approval of the Assembly for regulations relating to child support, which were laid before the Assembly on 27 July 2007. It may be helpful if I begin with an explanation of why the confirmatory procedure, which is the strongest form of Assembly control over regulations, is being used.
The long-standing principle, whereby Northern Ireland makes corresponding legislation to that for Great Britain in relation to child support, includes bringing regulations into operation on the same date here as in Great Britain. The Great Britain regulations to which those regulations correspond were approved by Parliament shortly before they were made by virtue of the affirmative resolution procedure. It is not possible for the Assembly to approve the Northern Ireland regulations before they are made and match the operative date. The use of the confirmatory procedure ensures that the regulations are made and come into operation, but must be approved by the Assembly within six months of the operative date, otherwise they fall.
The regulations correspond to regulations for Great Britain that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made following their approval by the House on Lords on 26 June and the House of Commons on 5 July.
The making of child support regulation packages is a fairly regular process to ensure that legislation is kept up to date, transparent and in step with wider Government legislation. In this package of regulations, we are updating and amending child support legislation to bring it into line with changes that have been made to other Government legislation. The amendments are largely technical and make a number of amendments to various sets of regulations that govern child support.
The regulations cover two issues: first, they change the way in which the Child Support Agency calculates the net earnings of a self-employed non-resident parent; and, secondly, they increase the time allowed for a non-resident parent who lives abroad to make an appeal and increase the notice period that the agency must give such a non-resident parent before commencing certain enforcement proceedings.
The changes to self-employed income became necessary following a House of Lords judgement. The Lords ruled that the meaning in legislation of taxable profits, which provide the basis for calculating such earnings, was ambiguous. The Law Lords ruled that the agency’s interpretation of taxable profits was incorrect. We have, therefore, taken this opportunity to clarify what we mean, by providing a definition of taxable profits, which corresponds to that used by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and to change the information that the agency used to calculate self-employed earnings. The result is that self-employed earnings as assessed by the agency will now more closely match those of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
The second change is to increase the time allowed for a non-resident parent who lives abroad to appeal a deduction-from-earnings order. The agency can obtain a deduction-from-earnings order should a non-resident parent not co-operate with the payment of child maintenance. That allows the payment of maintenance to be taken directly from the non-resident parent’s earnings. Before the amendment to the legislation, a non-resident parent could appeal a deduction-from-earnings order within 28 days. That period applied to all non-resident parents, both those living in Northern Ireland and Great Britain and those living abroad. The amendment extends the period in which to appeal to 56 days for non-resident parents living abroad, in recognition of the fact that it may be more difficult to make representations or bring an appeal within the same time frame as UK residents can.
I brought the regulations to the Committee for Social Development, which considered them at its meeting on 13 September 2007 and recommended that they be approved by the Assembly.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): The Committee for Social Development considered The Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007 on 13 September 2007. The regulations are a parity measure and amend various pieces of legislation on child support maintenance payments. They update and amend child support legislation to bring it into line with changes that had been made to other pieces of Government legislation, but specifically they amend the definition of taxable profits and extend the period in which appeals against certain orders are permitted.
At its meeting on 13 September, the Committee agreed to recommend that the regulations be confirmed by the Assembly.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister has confirmed that she intends to wind up the existing Child Support Agency and deliver the new arrangements directly through the Department for Social Development. Can she confirm that none of the new arrangements will be privatised and that they will continue to be administered by civil servants? How effective does the Minister consider that the new scheme will be, in light of the fact that we have been told that up to 40% of social security staff may lose their jobs?
Ms Ritchie: I presume that there will be no further comments about those orders. Therefore, I thank Members for their contributions to the discussions about the regulations.
The Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007 make small but important changes to the current child support scheme. Protecting and safeguarding children is pivotal and crucial and, above all, is the attempt to deal with child poverty by ensuring that those responsible for the maintenance of those children are addressed and live up to expectations.
The Member for Newry and Armagh Mr Brady raised a significant issue relating to the future delivery of child support in Northern Ireland. I decided that staff in the Department for Social Development, should be brought into the mainstream of the Civil Service, thereby safeguarding their needs and ensuring that they remain part of the Civil Service.
Regarding the other aspects of his comments, I have concluded that the existing Northern Ireland Child Support Agency should be wound up and that the delivery of its services should be brought under the direct control of my Department. In reaching that decision, I took account of the different scale of service that is provided here, as well as the need to maintain a focus on improving services to clients.
On the matter of jobs, the size of the new child support organisation in the Department has not yet been determined. However, I will investigate and explore that issue and will, undoubtedly, address the Committee about it. Meanwhile, I have been conscious of the need to protect the jobs in a large part of my organisation by ensuring that staff were brought into the Civil Service. That decision reflects the recommendations that were made in 2006 in Sir David Henshaw’s report, ‘Recovering child support: routes to responsibility’. In this case, I felt that the requirement to put such a decision to a non-departmental public body was not justified.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007 (S.R. 2007/347) be approved.
Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill: Legislative Consent Motion
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of provisions of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill dealing with the use of information, which are contained in clause 39 of, and paragraphs 4 to 6 of Schedule 6 to, that Bill as introduced in the House of Commons.
The Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 5 June 2007 and contains measures to take forward several proposals that were set out in the Government’s White Paper, ‘A new system of child maintenance’. The aim is to tackle child poverty by ensuring that more parents take responsibility for paying for their children and, consequently, that more children benefit.
Among other things, the Bill proposes the establishment of a new non-departmental public body — the child maintenance and enforcement commission — to promote parental responsibility and choice about how maintenance payments are arranged and, when arrangements break down, to improve the calculation, collection and enforcement of child maintenance. The commission’s remit will not extend to Northern Ireland. However, in order to function effectively, it will be necessary for the commission to exchange information with its counterpart in Northern Ireland to ensure that non-resident parents who move between Great Britain and Northern Ireland can be held to account if they are seen to evade their responsibilities.
There is provision for the two-way exchange of information held by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Department for Social Development and the Department for Employment and Learning, relating to social security, child support, war pensions and employment and training. New provisions are needed to ensure the continuing flow of that information when the child support function moves from the Department for Work and Pensions to the commission.
The Minister for Employment and Learning, the Member for East Belfast Sir Reg Empey, has indicated to me that he is content that information held by his Department relating to employment and training may be shared with the proposed child maintenance and enforcement commission.
As the subject is a transferred matter under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, approval for the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the Bill must be sought from the Executive Committee, the Committee for Social Development and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Executive Committee and the Committee for Social Development considered the matter and gave their approval on 13 September.
The Assembly must now consider the principle of extending to Northern Ireland the provisions in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill that deal with the two-way exchange of information. The exchange of information will benefit families in Great Britain and Northern Ireland as the two child support organisations will be able to work together to ensure that maintenance flows to the greatest possible number of children throughout Northern Ireland and Great Britain. I hope that Members will agree with me and support the motion.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): The Minister wrote to the Committee for Social Development on 19 August to notify members of the Westminster Government’s intention to legislate on a provision, included in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, that would extend to Northern Ireland. The Bill will establish a new child maintenance and enforcement commission. Although, as the Minister has said, that commission will not operate in Northern Ireland, it will take over the child support function currently carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions.
At present, there is provision for the two-way exchange of information held by the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Social Development and the Department for Employment and Learning. That information covers social security, child support, war pensions and employment and training.
The provision in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill that extends to Northern Ireland is purely technical; it will simply enable the present arrangements for the exchange of information to continue between the Department for Social Development and the new commission. It will allow non-resident parents who move between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to continue to be held to account if they are found to be evading their financial obligations.
The Committee for Social Development considered the matter at its meeting on 13 September 2007 and agreed to support the inclusion of the provision in the Bill.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister accept that the words “child maintenance” are much more relevant than “child support”? The Child Support Agency was an abysmal failure and did little to support those whom it was originally set up to help.
Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for bringing the legislation to the Assembly. Will she assure the House that the transition of the Child Support Agency into the Department will benefit from full consultation with staff and the Committee?
Mr Shannon: I welcome the Minister’s statement about the legislation, and I wish to ask several questions. I am sure that she shared my great concerns about the Child Support Agency, not least the fact that every time one tried to contact that office, one spoke to a different person. It seemed as though there was a game of musical chairs going on there.
During 2004-05, there were more than 9,000 applications for child maintenance, but just short of 2,500 calculations were completed. During 2005-06, there were, again, approximately 9,000 applications, but just short of 3,000 calculations were completed. Last year, there were 8,800 applications, but only 3,000 of those were cleared. Will the Minister assure Members that the new organisation will do a better job than the Child Support Agency has done in the past?
I have been receiving, as I am sure other Members have, a lot of correspondence on staffing issues. Will the Minister assure Members that — after the transfer of responsibility and the move of office — those who presently work in the Child Support Agency will be given other opportunities in the Civil Service in the Province? Is the Minister hoping to address the staffing issue through natural wastage? A lot of people want to stay in the Civil Service and want to be involved in that work. Members need an assurance that those issues are being considered.
Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat. The question that I wished to ask has already been answered.
Ms Ritchie: I thank Members for their contributions, and I also thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development for his support and that of his Committee.
Micky Brady, Anna Lo and Jim Shannon have raised several issues. The purpose of the motion and the legislation is to ensure that child poverty is tackled; that people live up to their commitments in respect of child maintenance; and that every action is taken to ensure that that happens. Therefore, whether it is called support or maintenance, the important issue is that maintenance is paid, that maintenance is pursued, and that the people who deserve it actually receive it.
In response to Ms Lo’s question, I want to ensure that Northern Ireland has the best possible system for delivering child maintenance/support, and, above all, that we have the best possible delivery to ensure that child poverty is tackled — that is the most significant issue.
As I said earlier, I have concluded that the existing Northern Ireland Child Support Agency should be wound up, and that relevant service delivery should be brought under the control of my Department. In reaching that decision, I took account of the different scale of the service that is provided in Northern Ireland, and the need to maintain the focus on improving the service to clients.
Members will recall that in GB, Sir David Henshaw was appointed to undertake a review into the operation and delivery of child support because of the very reasons that Jim Shannon referred to — the delays and the difficulties in the system in getting payments to children and to their respective parents. I wanted to be able to correct that, but I also wanted to reflect the Northern Ireland situation. That is why I decided, some weeks ago, to bring the Child Support Agency within the remit of the Department for Social Development.
Mr Shannon raised significant issues about employment. As I said earlier, the size of the new child support agency organisation has not yet been determined. Therefore, I am not in a position to assess the impact on staffing levels. I will come back to the Committee for Social Development and to respective Members who have raised queries about that particular issue.
I intend to introduce a Bill that will reform the present child support system, create a simple system that enables and encourages parents to make their own arrangements, but delivers firmly and more effectively for parents who need help in arranging maintenance.
There will be a consultation process on that Bill. As Minister, I want to do the best that I can to ensure that issues of child maintenance are addressed, that those who need to deliver that maintenance — namely, the absent fathers — do so, and that I have the staff and the capacity to do that.
Whatever happens, we must improve the system and dilute the causes of past criticism. We must deliver the payment to those who most need it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of provisions of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill dealing with the use of information, which are contained in clause 39 of, and paragraphs 4 to 6 of Schedule 6 to, that Bill as introduced in the House of Commons.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for a winding-up speech. All other Members who speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been received and has been published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for a winding-up speech.
Mrs I Robinson: I beg to move
That this Assembly opposes the introduction of the proposed guidelines on the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland; believes that the guidelines are flawed; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to abandon any attempt to make abortion more widely available in Northern Ireland.
I welcome the opportunity to have this debate, but I very much regret that I, as Chairman of the Health Committee, was not informed of the Ulster Unionist Party amendment as a matter of courtesy.
In our deliberations, it is essential that we recognise Lord Justice Nicholson’s recent judgement, which endorsed the existing legislative position in Northern Ireland. He suggested that guidance be produced, and he stated:
“This judgment is written in the hope that the department will seek to reduce the number of women and girls going away to seek an abortion and to encourage those seeking an abortion in Northern Ireland to make a different choice. It must surely be the concern of all right-thinking persons in the United Kingdom that the number of abortions which are carried out is so high.”
I also wish to point out that, before this afternoon’s debate, my colleague Jeffrey Donaldson and I received a petition in support of our motion. That petition contained approximately 120,000 signatures. That petition started in early January in shopping malls, and so forth. I have no doubt that, had there been more time and more people available to collect signatures, there would have been a considerably greater number of signatures in support of the motion.
Owing to the recent postcard campaign in support of the motion, my mailbag has never been so heavy. I congratulate those who were responsible for that campaign, the sentiment of which we should all recognise. We must commit ourselves to changing the situation for the better. In order to see the number of abortions genuinely fall, a holistic approach is required, right across our society. Abortion is an issue on which I have strong Christian convictions. The sanctity of life is my overriding concern.
Better statistical records must be maintained on abortions. The current lack of information was criticised by Lord Justice Nicholson. Health workers admit that abortions occur solely on account of foetal abnormalities, but that is illegal under Northern Ireland law. No wonder some are suspicious that detailed records are purposely not being kept in order to conceal what is actually going on.
I urge that better records be kept on the physical and psychological complications that arise from abortions. I have been informed that, during a presentation given by Dr Harith Lamki in 2000, he stated that post-mortems are conducted after all abortions that are carried out for reasons of foetal abnormality.
I would like to discover the location of those records. As Chairperson of the Health Committee, I propose that the Committee seeks the records for those post mortems that have been carried out on foetuses. Dr Lamki from the Royal Victoria Hospital should appear before the Health Committee and give it some explanation about those records, which are being kept in secret.
Important child-protection issues are raised when under 14s seek abortions. There should be no secret abortions. Compared to all other rights and considerations, the confidentiality of young teenagers seems to have become paramount. Health professionals must fulfil their legal obligations towards the under 14s. Immature children should not be solely responsible for decisions that they may not have the competence or experience to make.
I am also informed that under paragraph 2.13 of the draft guidelines, which mentions forced abortions, in the cases of children who do not really want abortions, health professionals have the overriding right to insist that those children have abortions. It will cause all of us a great deal of concern to know that parents are not to be included in such decisions.
We must ensure that the Health Service gives strong protection to conscientious objectors who do not want to have any part in assisting with abortions either on grounds of faith or otherwise. That term is used on the mainland; however, it is important to flag up that such people should not be forced to carry out abortions.
Abortion hurts women. It hurts their minds, hearts, bodies, and relationships with other people. I emphasise that there are no maternal deaths in this jurisdiction due to not having an abortion. There are no unsafe abortions in Northern Ireland. There is no medical condition that requires direct abortion.
If we are really concerned about the experience and quality of life of women in Northern Ireland, we will do everything that we can to reduce the number of abortions that occur.
As I said earlier, I am committed to the sanctity of life, and I am determined to prioritise women’s health. That is why I care deeply about abortion. Some people suggest that abortion offers a solution — I simply cannot agree. In truth, abortion does not bring solutions; it brings only pain, heartache, and loss. We can say that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but many women come to my surgery carrying guilt that, generally speaking, they will carry to their graves.
Abortion is bad for babies, women, families, and society. Women face potential safety issues as a result of having an abortion. The number of deaths is very small, but damage, or infection, to the uterus or fallopian tubes may occur and may lead to infertility. Menstrual difficulties can also result. Women may suffer significant emotional trauma. There is also some evidence that having an abortion may increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer, although the results of studies on that are not consistent.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal was criticised for publishing data outlining the psychological side effects of abortion. In an editorial, the journal was forced to state:
“we cannot toss out data any time we don’t like their implications”.
An opinion piece by Breda O’Brien in ‘The Irish Times’ on Saturday reflected on last Wednesday’s ‘Dispatches’ programme on Channel 4, which screened graphic images of abortions and their aftermath. A surgeon of a Marie Stopes International clinic, who carried out late-term abortions, was interviewed for the programme. Even at the relatively early stage of 12 to 13 weeks, foetuses had to be dismembered.
The surgeon admitted that he did not go into the details of what is involved when women have the procedure, because it is too upsetting.
Mr Donaldson: Is my honourable friend and the House aware that a petition of more than 100,000 signatures opposing the guidelines was presented to the Assembly this morning? If Members wish to see those signatures from both sides of the community in Northern Ireland, they are in the Rotunda, stacked in boxes. Does the honourable Member agree that it is clear that there is overwhelming public opposition to the draft guidelines and that the Assembly should take that fact into account?
Mrs I Robinson: I thank the Member for that point. I totally concur with him that a vast number of people signed the petition. Earlier in my speech, I referred to the 120,000 signatures that had been collected and that were presented to the Assembly this morning.
Mr P Ramsey: The Member referred to Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches’. Does she agree that, if the guidelines were introduced in Northern Ireland, in one part of a hospital, doctors would be aborting children — dismembering legs and arms — while in another part of the same hospital, doctors in an intensive care unit would be trying to bring children back to life?
Mrs I Robinson: The Member must have read my speech, because I was about to refer to that issue. The contradiction is so sad; on the one hand, there are doctors who are fighting for the life of a child who has arrived prematurely —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member please bring her remarks to a close?
Mrs I Robinson: On the other hand, there are doctors who are dragging a foetus out of a woman’s body. If that foetus had lived, it would probably have been a very healthy child.
Mr McCallister: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, following consultation with the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, to bring forward guidelines on the lawful termination of pregnancy, as defined by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, and the Bourne Judgment case law, and in accordance with the ruling of the Courts.”
As we debate the motion and the amendment, I am sure that all sides of the House, including the proposers of the motion, will share my view that the difficult, painful and divisive issue of abortion should not be deployed for partisan political ends. I also trust that all Members who speak today willingly accept that, whatever debate we might have at some stage on the Abortion Act 1967, today is not the day for that debate. That is because, without the devolution of policing and justice powers, the House, under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, does not have the authority to change or overturn the existing legal position on abortion in this part of the United Kingdom. The amendment clearly restates and reaffirms the existing legal position.
Mr Donaldson: Is the Member aware that the Secretary of State, in response to a question that I tabled in the House of Commons, stated clearly that Parliament would not legislate on abortion without having regard to the views of the Assembly? Does he accept that today is an opportunity to put down a clear marker on the issue?
Mr McCallister: I thank the Rt Hon Member for his intervention. My answer is yes, which will become clear later in my speech.
Mrs I Robinson: Does the Member also accept that the majority of people in Northern Ireland — from all faiths and none — would baulk if any Government or legislative assembly insisted on softening the 1967 Act?
Mr McCallister: I have no difficulty in agreeing with the honourable Member’s comment. My speech will clarify that the UUP amendment is about obeying rather than softening the law.
Under the provisions of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 and the Bourne judgement of 1939, abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except where it is necessary to save the life of the mother or where continuation of the pregnancy would involve a risk of serious injury to her physical or mental health.
The amendment explicitly states that any guidelines issued by the Department of Health with regard to the lawful termination of pregnancy must be entirely consistent with that legal framework as it stands.
The vote in this House in June 2000 demonstrated that there is no indication that the Northern Ireland Assembly is minded to change the existing law on abortion. What is more, in another place, Her Majesty’s Government have stated that it is not their intention to seek to bypass this House on the matter. As recently as July 2007, Her Majesty’s Government declared:
“The Government have no plans to amend the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. We believe the best forum for discussion of these questions is the Northern Ireland Assembly, once it has assumed responsibility for the criminal law.”
That is the settled position in law. “Law” — that is the word that is, or should be, central in today’s debate. In October 2004, the courts instructed the Department to issue appropriate guidance on the lawful termination of pregnancy. That positive duty is mentioned nowhere in the motion that has been proposed by Mr Donaldson and Mrs Robinson. Members will rightly be concerned that Ministers are subject to the rule of law. None of us, I assume, wishes Ministers to exercise arbitrary power or to dismiss the courts as an inconvenience.
Whatever the merit of the motion’s commitment to the existing legal position in respect of abortion, it has overlooked the fact that the Minister is not — and should not be — free to ignore the rulings of the courts. In his judgment, Lord Justice Nicholson stated that:
“In this case the court is only concerned with the … department’s responsibilities in regard to abortion under the legal framework established by Parliament … The outcome of this appeal does not entitle anyone to claim that as a result the law should be liberalized.”
The purpose of the guidelines that the Minister and his Department have been instructed by the courts to issue cannot and should not undermine the legal framework established by Parliament; that is, the existing legal position.
Let me make it absolutely clear, as the proposer of the amendment, that I do not support the extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, nor do I support abortion on demand.
Mrs Long: Does the Member agree that, although the concerns that were expressed by the proposer of the motion are shared by many in this Chamber, if we wish to have a formal debate on the specific matter of the Abortion Act 1967, it would be better to have it under that title, rather than debating around the guidelines for the current situation?
Mr McCallister: I agree, and I thank the honourable Member for that useful intervention.
The amendment calls on the Minister to work with the Health Committee in bringing forth the guidelines. It will be obvious to Members that one of the proposers of the motion is also the Chairperson of the Health Committee. Of course, I also am a member of the Health Committee. I am sure that, under her robust chairmanship, the Committee will seek to ensure that all the concerns of this House on the guidelines are addressed. As she rightly said, she will be guided by Christian values that are of course shared by others on that Committee.
The amendment has nothing to do with, in the words of the court, liberalising the law in Northern Ireland with regard to abortion. I would not be supporting or speaking for such an amendment. This amendment is about the rule of law. The guidelines issued by the Department must be consistent with the law on abortion as it stands. The Minister and the Department are not free to arbitrarily ignore the court’s instruction to issue guidelines.
Mr Durkan: Can the Member clarify for the House whether he believes that the proposed guidelines, as published, are consistent with the legal provisions that his amendment mentions?
Mr McCallister: The proposed guidelines will come before the Health Committee, and that is where they will be subjected to serious scrutiny. At the moment they are only draft guidelines.
Mr Donaldson: I am trying to understand why the Member opposes the motion. The motion simply opposes the introduction of the “proposed guidelines” — he has just used that phrase. It does not prohibit the Minister from bringing forward other guidelines and taking those to the Health Committee. It says that the guidelines, as proposed, are unacceptable and that any attempt to make abortion more widely available is unacceptable. As I understand it, the honourable Member accepts both points, but I need to be clear: does he see the current guidelines as flawed? Does he oppose their introduction? If so, why can he not support the motion?
Mr McCallister: The Minister and his Department have no option but to bring forward guidelines that are within the law. As Lord Justice Nicholson said, it is not about liberalising the law. If the Member reads the judgment that I quoted, it will be clear to him that this is not about liberalising the law on abortion. I do not support liberalising the law on abortion.
Mr Wells: Will the Member give way?
Mr McCallister: I had better.
Mr Wells: Does the honourable Member realise that an amendment has been proposed in the House of Commons by a Liberal MP, almost as we speak, to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland? Whereas my party’s motion will send a clear message to Westminster that that is not acceptable, his amendment, if passed, will send it a very woolly motion that will mean nothing.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up. I am sorry.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Sinn Féin supports both the amendment and the motion.
It is hardly surprising that ethics and morality are at the heart of the debate. The guidelines that are the subject of the debate have yet to be tabled or discussed at the Health Committee.
The Assembly’s debate on abortion in 2000 was primarily about the Abortion Act 1967. At that time, my colleague Mary Nelis remarked that we need an:
“honest and reasoned debate on what is a tragic dilemma for women.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 5, p221, col 2].
I concur with that.
The draft or proposed guidelines are a direct result of the Family Planning Association’s application for judicial review, which obliged the Department of Health to produce a set of guidelines which will protect staff. The guidelines are not about the extension of the British Abortion Act 1967. The Family Planning Association initiated the judicial review process because there were too many inconsistencies in the provision of abortion in the North of Ireland. Those inconsistencies resulted in many years of confusion about legal protection for professionals who might be asked to participate in an abortion that could be deemed illegal, and who might then be open to prosecution. The draft or proposed guidelines will address those issues, which, for many years, it has been easier and more comfortable to ignore.
The purpose of any guidelines must be to outline the law relating to the termination of pregnancy in the North. Sinn Féin is not in favour of abortion. It is against the extension of the British Abortion Act 1967 to the North of Ireland. We believe that all possible education and support services should be put in place to protect crisis pregnancies. Sinn Féin does not support any attempt to make abortion more widely available; however, it accepts that health professionals working in that field need to have clear guidance. My party has been consistent in its approach. When the abortion issue was discussed in the last Assembly, Sinn Féin placed on record its firm opposition to the extension to the North of the British Abortion Act 1967. Sinn Féin believes that this complex matter should be referred to the Health Committee.
Irish society has a responsibility to address the fact that between 5,000 and 10,000 women travel from every part of Ireland to Britain for abortions each year.
Sinn Féin’s view is that the way to tackle crisis pregnancies and abortions is through comprehensive sex education, full access to affordable childcare and comprehensive support services that include financial support for single parents.
My party opposes the attitudes and forces in society that pressure women to have abortions. Equally, my party opposes those who criminalise women who make that tough decision. In cases of rape, incest, sexual abuse or when a women’s life or health is in grave danger, Sinn Féin accepts that the final decision must rest with the woman.
My party supports the principle that there should not be any attempt to make abortion more widely available in the North. Guidelines should be discussed by the Health Committee in the first instance, a discussion that should be based on information and be within the parameters of current legislation. That position has guided my party’s attitude to the debate. Therefore, Sinn Féin will support the amendment and, indeed, the motion. Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs Hanna: I support the motion. At the outset, I want to pass on my colleague Dominic Bradley’s apologies to the House. He had hoped to be present to speak to the motion.
As a party that was born out of the civil rights movement, the SDLP believes that the right to life is the most basic right of all. That includes the right to life of the unborn. My party has been consistently opposed to the taking of life, whether it be the life of Paul Quinn, who was so brutally murdered in Monaghan at the weekend; life that was lost during the civil conflict that society has endured for the past four decades; or life that is taken by the state through capital punishment. It is for that reason that the SDLP opposes abortion, upholds the right to life of the foetus and opposes the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland.
The Assembly must approach the matter of unwanted pregnancy with the utmost compassion and support for the pregnant woman. Fortunately, the stigma of illegitimacy has almost been banished from society. However, much more support must be provided for mothers and the family unit. I pay tribute to the care and compassion that has been shown by the statutory agencies, as well as voluntary agencies such as CURA and LIFE Ireland.
As the SDLP’s health spokesperson, I responded to the Department’s draft guidance on the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland that was issued in January 2007. I registered my concerns about the implications of the proposed new guidelines, particularly their non-specific nature, because I believe that they could lead to a relaxation of the restrictions on abortion in Northern Ireland. The Court of Appeal ruling in October 2004 ordered the Department to draw up the guidance on which abortions can be carried out under the law, on the foot of a challenge by the Family Planning Association. The court’s judgement did not indicate that the law should be liberalised in any way, yet the draft guidance appears to do just that.
If the draft guidance is implemented, it will have significant moral, ethical and resource implications for the Health Service. At present, abortion is permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother’s life is in danger or if there is a serious long-term threat to her mental and physical health. Otherwise, abortion can be deemed a criminal act. Some case law has held that abortion is not always prohibited. Clear and concise guidelines are absolutely essential in order to end the current uncertainty. The draft guidelines are ambiguous and open to various interpretations. Terms such as “quality of life” and “serious adverse harm” are not defined. Interpretations will vary from one medical professional to another.
Not only do doctors need strong guidance, but the pregnant woman also needs as much information as possible on the support that is available to her during and after her pregnancy. If the woman’s doctor considers that her condition warrants an abortion, she must understand clearly the reasons for that and what exactly the doctor proposes. The terminology is vague and uncertain. There is concern that the statistics that are provided by the Department have been underestimated. Closer monitoring and information gathering is needed in order to ensure that much more accurate data is available.
Finally, I express my concern that the draft guidance was not placed on the central consultation register for Northern Ireland Departments, nor publicly circulated, given the controversial nature of the issue.
I ask the Minister to ensure: that the draft guidance is re-drafted for clarity and to remove ambiguity; that there is much wider consultation, not just to the Health Committee, as stated in the amendment; and that there is no relaxation in the interpretation of the law.
Ms Lo: First, I wish to state that I am speaking in a personal capacity. The Alliance Party regards abortion as a matter of conscience for individual Members, who each hold their own views. I oppose the motion and support the amendment. As a former social worker and community worker, I have supported women and families who were faced with the stress and consequences of unplanned pregnancies, which are a reality in our society.
In 2005, 1,164 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England to have an abortion. Many others went to other parts of Europe for abortions. The Abortion Act 1967 does not extend to Northern Ireland. Abortion is only legal under certain circumstances — something which has caused confusion and ambiguities in Northern Ireland. There is confusion in communities — particularly among those people who come from other parts of the UK, or other countries — about what is and is not permitted under the law.
Depending on where one lives, there are inconsistencies throughout Northern Ireland about where abortion services may or may not be available. In addition, some health staff may have conscientious objections to abortion and may be unsure about their employment rights if they refuse to participate in performing a termination.
As we have heard, the Department issued draft guidelines to clarify the legal position and give guidance to health professionals on service provision following the Court of Appeal decision, which was instigated by the Family Planning Association. I have read through those guidelines, which were produced by a working group comprising representatives from a range of professional and specialist backgrounds. I welcome the guidelines. The Department has also received many responses from the public and from interested parties.
The guidelines are not about extending the provision of abortion to Northern Ireland or about bringing the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland. Lord Justice Nicholson made it clear that his ruling did not mean that the law should be liberalised. The guidelines provide clearer directions to health professionals on procedures and practice and, ultimately, will improve the quality of service to women who are often confused when facing such a situation in their lives.
Of course, there are criticisms from the voluntary sector about gaps on many issues such as informed consent, referrals, information giving and so on. The draft guidelines are a good basis on which to formulate guidance. The Department and the Health Committee should consider carefully the views from the consultation and should take into account all of the relevant suggestions that could be incorporated into the final guidelines.
Abortion is an emotive issue. The motion to oppose the introduction of the proposed guidelines is an attempt to whip up emotions and sabotage the aim of the Department and the Law Courts, which is to provide health workers with a better understanding of the principles of the law and guidance for better practice for all. It is important that we are clear that the House is not debating whether abortion should be legalised in Northern Ireland.
It is essential that the scrutiny of the draft guidelines be left to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The Committee can call for evidence from relevant bodies, and thus ensure that it is well informed to make a sound judgement on the guidelines.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Members will be aware that Question Time will begin at 2.30 pm. I therefore ask Members to take their ease until then. The debate will resume at the end of Question Time.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
First Minister and deputy First Minister
1. Mr Brolly asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail what engagements have been carried out by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister in the past seven days. (AQO 580/08)
The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): On Monday 15 October, the First Minister and I met a group of senior diplomats from around the world who were on a one-day visit to Belfast. We also met Lord Ashdown and his team on the strategic review of parading.
On Tuesday 16 October, the First Minister and I hosted a lunch for the US ambassadors to Ireland and Britain and a group of senior business people as part of the preparation for the Executive’s investment conference, due to be held in May 2008. The First Minister also hosted a meeting of leading church representatives to facilitate a discussion on the proposed charities Bill.
On Wednesday 17 October, we jointly met a number of representatives to discuss the Maze/Long Kesh regeneration. That was followed by a meeting with the Commissioner for Public Appointments and attendance at a lunch hosted by the Speaker to mark the visit of the President of Croatia. We also held a private meeting with the Croatian President and his delegation.
On Thursday 18 October, the First Minister was involved in the launch at Parliament Buildings of the ‘Northern Corridor — Railway Renaissance’ report by the Northern Corridor Railways Group. As scheduled, we chaired a meeting of the Executive Committee.
On Friday 19 October, we both carried out a range of non-ministerial engagements, including constituency business. In addition to those engagements, we dealt with a significant number of departmental policy and Executive papers, Assembly Questions and other matters relating to our ministerial roles.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat arís, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the deputy First Minister provide some detail about the meeting with the US ambassadors Tuttle and Foley?
The deputy First Minister: Last Tuesday, the First Minister and I hosted a very successful lunch for the representatives of 17 blue-chip US companies, accompanied by Bob Tuttle, the US ambassador to the UK and Tom Foley, the US ambassador to Ireland. Together with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, we had the opportunity to brief them on the exciting economic opportunities here and to encourage them to consider investing. The visit was initiated by President Bush’s special envoy, Paula Dobriansky, as part of her very effective focus in securing support for the planned investment conference here next May. We believe that the conference will mark a massive step forward in helping to grow a dynamic and innovative economy, which is one of the key priorities in our draft Programme for Government. We look forward to debating the draft programme in the House later this week.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): Will the deputy First Minister join me in condemning without any equivocation the brutal murder of Mr Paul Quinn from Cullyhanna at the weekend? Given his own role as a major figure in the republican movement, will the deputy First Minister publicly use his position of influence to ensure that the individuals responsible for this murder are identified and dealt with by the lawful authorities in both jurisdictions, irrespective of their background or political leanings?
The deputy First Minister: I have no problem whatsoever in agreeing with everything that the Member has said. This was a dastardly murder, carried out by criminals in my opinion, and I speak with the full authority of the House when I say that we all send our sympathy to that poor man’s family. It was disgraceful, and I appeal to anyone who has any information, no matter who they are, to give that information both to the Garda Síochána and to the Police Service here in the North; that is the only course that is open to them. Those activities are absolutely disgusting and have no place whatsoever in a civilised society.
Mr Speaker: Before I call Mr Ford, I say again to Members on all sides of the House that supplementary questions must relate to the original question.
Mr Ford: I associate myself and my colleagues with Mr Kennedy’s remarks.
Given that the deputy First Minister and his colleagues have not found time between June and last week’s Executive meeting to discuss the conflict transformation initiative, will the deputy First Minister now give a commitment to the House that the Executive will collectively ensure that funding of that initiative is brought to an end and that the wish of the great majority of people is carried through?
The deputy First Minister: That issue has been marked more by fiction than by fact. I speak on behalf of everyone on the Executive when I say that I am absolutely opposed to any funding whatsoever going to the UDA, whether it decommissions its weapons or not. The funding that was introduced by Peter Hain was irregular; it was wrong, and it should never have been introduced. The decision that was made by the Minister for Social Development was absolutely correct.
‘Challenge of Change’
2. Mr Brady asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to give an assessment of the ‘Challenge of Change’ cross-border anti-racism initiative. (AQO 581/08)
The deputy First Minister: On behalf of the First Minister and myself, I had the pleasure of launching the Challenge of Change initiative on 3 October. I reiterate my congratulations to Newry and Mourne District Council and Louth County Council on securing significant European funding for that important work. Both areas, in common with many other areas here and in the South, have seen unprecedented growth in the diversity of their population over recent years. That offers enormous economic, social and cultural benefits. However, it also brings substantial challenges, in particular to ensure that all who choose to come and live here have the opportunity to participate fully in our society. Our public services face a particular challenge: if we do not promote racial equality in how we deliver services, we will risk promoting racial inequality. It is essential that everyone has access to opportunities and similar life chances. At the local level, the challenges must be met and the benefits of our increasing diversity must be secured. The Office of the First and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) commends the initiative of both councils in establishing the Challenge of Change project. We are confident that it will yield benefits for service users locally and important lessons for us all.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Can the deputy First Minister give an update on when the Peace III operational programme funding will become available?
The deputy First Minister: I am pleased that we have secured a third special EU peace programme. Including matched funding, Peace III will be worth €330 million from 2007 to 2013. That is a shared allocation between the Executive and the Irish Government. The Peace III budget is smaller than those of previous EU peace programmes. Following enlargement, the EU has faced significant challenges of political and economic transformation in many of the new member states. To have secured funding for a third EU peace programme in those circumstances represents a significant achievement. The draft Peace III operational programme has been submitted to the European Commission for approval. We look forward to agreement with the European Commission on the new programme so that it can open for applications later this year.
Mr McNarry: Will the deputy First Minister agree that change in diversity will come only when the lead parties in the Assembly stop pursuing their linguistic agendas ahead of the economic agendas?
The deputy First Minister: There is a mighty responsibility, not only on the two larger parties but on all of the parties in the Assembly, to show leadership in the community. All parties must recognise that newcomers are arriving on our shores, North and South, and that that represents major challenges. To use the question to open up another debate on another argument — I presume about the Irish language — is a bit of a liberty and a mistake. Ensuring that people are treated with fairness and equality is the responsibility not only of the two larger parties but all of the parties in the Assembly. I am delighted to say that all of the parties in the Assembly, and many local government agencies, are now working hard to ensure that people who come here are not only welcomed, but given the essential support that they deserve.
Mrs Hanna: Can the Minister assure me that the anti-racism initiative will be part of a local strategy to promote racial equality, especially in hotspots, where racism must be proactively challenged?
The deputy First Minister: I absolutely agree. The initiative that Newry and Mourne District Council and Louth Local Authorities took demonstrates that local authorities and people in different parts of the country are facing up to the huge challenges before us. There has been a recent increase in racist attacks, and we have a huge responsibility to do everything in our power to ensure that we defend the rights of people who come here, many of whom feel isolated, lonely and vulnerable.
Plans to Promote Northern Ireland
3. Mr Shannon asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what plans it has to promote Northern Ireland in the United States of America and in Europe. (AQO 503/08)
The deputy First Minister: Promotion in the United States and Europe is a high priority for OFMDFM. The bureau in Washington promotes several priority sectors to key audiences in the United States, including politicians, businesspeople, academics, research institutions and cultural organisations. We are also engaged in several major initiatives to encourage investment and visits from the United States.
Invest NI and the bureau are working with the US State Department and US businesses to bring over several economic missions in the next few months. We will travel to Washington, DC, and other major US cities to plan an economic conference for early 2008. OFMDFM will work with Minister Dodds and meet chief executives of major US corporations to promote the investment message.
The First Minister and I hope to travel to Brussels before Christmas to hear, at first hand, about the progress made by the European Commission Task Force, the establishment of which the Commission’s President Barroso announced on 1 May 2007. Our planned visit follows on from a series of visits by Ministers over the past six months: several Executive colleagues, including both junior Ministers and I, have visited Brussels and met senior politicians and officials on departmental business. Such a level of personal engagement is important in keeping the North in the minds of our European partners. It demonstrates to those in the European institutions, in addition to potential investors, tourists and regional and industrial partners, that we are open for business.
I commend the work of the Executive’s Brussels office, which supports Ministers and officials when they visit the city. To ensure that the North’s interests are taken into account as policies are developed, it also assists Departments in their monitoring of policy and legislative proposals that are working their way through the institutions. The office works with other regional offices to promote a positive image, most recently by participating, with other regional offices, in the European open-day event that promoted Europe’s regions and cities. The office also makes its facilities, expertise and advice available to local government and civil society representatives to assist them in their dealings with the European institutions.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for his detailed response that outlined the situations in the United States and Europe. Does the Minister agree that there is tremendous goodwill in the USA and Europe towards the people of Northern Ireland and the Assembly? Does he agree that it is time to promote Northern Ireland and to encourage businesses to set up here and create employment, which would benefit everyone? Will stronger trade links be established between businesses in Northern Ireland and those in USA and Europe?
The deputy First Minister: I recently visited the United States at the same time as Ministers Poots and Empey. There, the phenomenal interest in the political developments over recent months is obvious. A tremendous sense of goodwill and support emanates from everyone that we meet on our visits to the United States. In all probability, the most important economic-investment conference ever to be held here will take place in about May 2008. In the lead-up to that conference, further economic missions will come over from the United States. That demonstrates that people in the United States have a huge interest in the situation here and are seriously considering investing in this part of the world.
There is a limited window of opportunity because the presidential election campaign kicks off, big time, early in 2008. Therefore, the period between now and May 2008 is critical. We must take advantage of that opportunity, but we are being well supported. The visit by Ambassador Tuttle and Ambassador Foley and the level of interest being shown by Paula Dobriansky at the State Department clearly show that there is enormous goodwill for all the work that we are doing. If the economic investment conference is successful, and if we secure more highly paid, quality jobs for our young people, that will have a massive effect on the battle that we are fighting to ensure that the economic prospects for all our people are improved.
Mr Gallagher: Does the deputy First Minister agree that, in promoting any part of Ireland, a key target group is those of Irish descent, and that that is particularly true in the United States? Will the deputy First Minister provide an update of any discussions that he has had with the Dublin Government in relation to the promotion of the island? As a representative of a constituency that has been starved of foreign inward investment for many years, does he see any role —
Mr Speaker: Order. Supplementary questions should relate to the original question. I have to rule that supplementary question out of order. It does not, in any way, relate to the original question.
Mr McCallister: I will try to stay on the subject. Does the deputy First Minister agree that the fundamental purpose of our Washington office differs from that of the European office, in that it is primarily geared towards attracting new business and inward investment to Northern Ireland? To that end, does he believe that the office should, therefore, be business led rather than managed by the Civil Service?
The deputy First Minister: The experiences of recent years were a result of the circumstances of the time. However, we now find ourselves in a wholly new situation as a result of restoration of the institutions. As I said in an earlier answer, there is huge interest in the United States and in Irish America. Many Irish-American companies have shown tremendous interest. Much of the work that has been done by the Irish Government has assisted our efforts to generate interest in attempts to bring about an approach whereby everywhere on the island will benefit, but, particularly here in the North, because we have had such uneven development in recent times.
There are big questions for us to answer in respect of the Washington bureau and how we take its work forward. There will be a change in the leadership of the bureau in the next few weeks. On 1 November, Norman Houston takes up his position as director of the bureau. The challenges that lie ahead must take into account the points that Mr McCallister has just made.
North/South Ministerial Council: Institutional Format
4. Mr W Clarke asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail what arrangements have been made for the North/South Ministerial Council to meet in institutional format; and the issues that will be under discussion at that meeting. (AQO 579/08)
The deputy First Minister: At its plenary meeting on 17 July 2007, the North/South Ministerial Council agreed to hold a meeting in institutional format in October 2007. The North/South Ministerial Council secretariat is currently finalising arrangements for that meeting. We will give the Executive and the Assembly details of the date, agenda and ministerial attendance for the meeting when those have been finalised and agreed. Following the meeting, a report will be made to the Executive and to the Assembly.
Mr W Clarke: Will the deputy First Minister update the House on the establishment of the review of areas of North/South co-operation and of the all-Ireland implementation bodies? Furthermore, will he provide details of the two advisers from the Executive who will be appointed to that review?
The deputy First Minister: The review will be undertaken by a review group, which will report to the North/South Ministerial Council. The review group includes senior officials from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the North/South Ministerial Council secretariat. The review group will include an advisory panel of four expert advisers, two of whom will be nominated by the Executive and two of whom will be nominated by the Irish Government.
The two expert advisers appointed by the Executive are Peter King and Sean Oliver.
Mr Gardiner: Can the deputy First Minister confirm that the mode of operation of the North/South Ministerial Council, including meetings in the institutional format, remains unchanged from the protocol of the Belfast Agreement of 10 April 1998 and the British-Irish Agreement of 2 December 1999?
The deputy First Minister: The North/South Ministerial Council is what it is.
Mr Durkan: Would it be possible for Ministers representing both Administrations, meeting in the institutional format, to discuss the possibility of a new study of the obstacles to mobility to take account of new issues that are arising — particularly in, but not confined to, border areas — including access to and eligibility for services, as well as the question of residential requirements that are imposed on different services? That is a matter that must be looked at in the round if politicians are to find sensible answers for service providers and service users.
The deputy First Minister: I have no doubt that that issue, among a range of others, will be discussed. There is no doubt that many people on both sides of the border face huge difficulties and obstacles to mobility. There are some very human stories — none of which I will relate to the House today — of people experiencing massive difficulties as a result of the obstacles. There is a willingness on all sides, which was shown at the last meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in Armagh, to discuss those matters with a view to resolving them.
Tackling Racism and Sectarianism
5. Mr McHugh asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline the next steps it will take in tackling racism and sectarianism. (AQO 582/08)
The deputy First Minister: The First Minister and I have consistently committed ourselves and the Executive to the elimination of sectarianism and racism. Hate crime, in any form, is unacceptable. Recent PSNI statistics show a mixed picture: although there has been a decrease in sectarian crimes and incidents, the number of racial crimes rose from 746 to 861, which is an increase of 15%. Racial incidents also rose from 936 to 1,047, which is a 12% increase. The issues that sectarian and racist attacks raise — as well as the broader issue of racial equality — concern all sections of society. No community can be complacent about this wickedness.
While criminal justice matters are not transferred, we are committed to working closely with the police service and criminal justice agencies to tackle sectarian and racist attacks. Over the next few months, we will bring forward detailed proposals for a programme of cohesion and integration — designed to build on some of the excellent work being done, particularly by district councils — to address the challenges that local communities face. The core of those proposals will be action to tackle racism and sectarianism. The Department intends to bring the proposals for discussion to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and to the Assembly in the next few months.
In the meantime, the Department will continue its extensive work with councils and other key organisations to support the excellent work to address sectarianism and racism and build good relations in many local communities.
Mr McHugh: I am sure that the deputy First Minister will agree that, following a racist attack on a family in Enniskillen, it is important that the local community should actively show its opposition to those who carry out such foolish attacks. What information is given to migrants when they come to this part of Ireland, given that they are often inarticulate — due to language difficulties — and, often, badly represented?
The deputy First Minister: Attacks on anyone — particularly newcomers to our shores, many of whom feel isolated and lonely — must be utterly condemned by everyone, whether they occur in Enniskillen or anywhere else.
The Government is committed to protecting the rights of all workers. It is not in anyone’s interests for new arrivals to be paid less than the going rate or have to put up with overcrowding in substandard and unsafe accommodation. It is clearly not in the interests of the migrant workers themselves nor those of the vast majority of the population.
OFMDFM has funded a number of welcome packs to address the information needs of new arrivals. We have also been pleased to have provided the funding, along with the Human Rights Commission, to produce a series of migrant worker rights guides. We have distributed thousands of copies, as well as making them available on the Internet. The guides are for workers from the EU/EEA member states, the so-called accession states, and for those outside the EU who arrive under work-permit and sector-based scheme arrangements. They provide comprehensive information on social security, housing, employment, health, immigration and other rights to help newcomers exercise their rights.
The Law Centre and the Human Rights Commission are to be congratulated on their work in producing the booklets, and we are pleased to have facilitated the extensive consultation between the authors and Government Departments to ensure the accuracy of the information. We will continue to fulfil that role, as the guides are updated periodically.
Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for his answer. Last week, departmental officials briefed the Committee about the proposed good relations priority in the Department. They said that no assurance could be given that that priority would be based on the shared future policy, but that the emphasis would be on tolerance. In light of that, will the Minister take the opportunity to reassure Members that the First Minister and deputy First Minister are fully aware of progress in community relations thinking since the 1970s? Will he also reassure us that they will shortly, and jointly, look at active promotion of community relations through less passive priorities, such as engagement in education, and that they remain committed to the promotion of a shared future?
The deputy First Minister: The First Minister and I, and our colleagues in the Executive, are consistently, through the responsibilities of our Departments, interested to ensure that we tackle the many grave issues relating to people who are being subjected to racial attacks and sectarianism. Obviously we want to move forward together.
By coming together in this Government, along with other parties, we recognise our responsibility to move forward in a shared way. We all know, and understand, that there are huge challenges — so these issues are a work in progress. During the course of our deliberations we will acquaint the Committee with those issues, and we will continually update our approach and attitude on how to tackle those very serious issues that have been identified.
Mr B McCrea: Is the deputy First Minister aware that in 2002 the University of Ulster produced research that indicated that one in three children aged from seven to 12 have received some form of sectarian threat, and if he has the run of himself, will he indicate whether that situation has become worse, better or stayed the same? Will he indicate if he is minded to do something about that himself, or will he bring the matter back to his Executive colleagues?
The deputy First Minister: We are all very conscious of our terrible past and the need to ensure, as we move forward, that we do not make the same mistakes that were made then. The restoration of these institutions on 8 May, alongside the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council clearly signals that all of us connected with politics in the North of Ireland want to move forward together.
The leadership shown by all of the Members in this Assembly sets a good example to many people, but we are a society emerging from a very bitter conflict, and we have a duty and a responsibility, as we move forward, to show leadership at political level. I have no doubt that if we continue with that work, we will undermine the negative thoughts and agendas that are on the minds of some people and children within our society, albeit that they are in the minority.
As we all move forward, we much watch our language and lead by example.
1. Mr Boylan asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the number of drivers who have lost their licences as a result of drink-driving and driving while under the influence of drugs in 2005, 2006 and 2007. (AQO 576/08)
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): For each of the calendar years 2005 and 2006, and for 2007 to date, the numbers of drivers who have lost their licences as a result of drink-driving or while driving under the influence of drugs has been 1,528 in 2005, 1,423 in 2006, and 970 to 30 September this year.
Mr Boylan: Has the Minister considered introducing a zero-tolerance approach to drink-driving and driving while under the influence of drugs? Will she share with the Assembly any other measures that she has to help in the detection of those offences?
Mrs Foster: The Member is probably aware that the limit in Northern Ireland is the same as that in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, at 80 mg of alcohol for each 100 ml of blood. Most other European Union countries have a limit of 50 mg for each 100 ml of blood, and some countries have a limit as low as 20 mg for each 100 ml of blood. I am in favour of lowering the limit, and the Department is looking at that possibility. Exceeding the limit in Northern Ireland is punishable by a mandatory driving disqualification of at least one year, plus a fine of up to £5,000, and a possible maximum prison sentence of six months.
I am wary of saying this with the Minister of Finance and Personnel sitting beside me, but the Member will know that the Department has quite a considerable advertising budget. The Department will continue to look at the effectiveness of that advertising. We believe it to be effective, but it is a matter for our road safety strategy review, which is ongoing.
Mr Speaker: Before I call Mr Kennedy for a supplementary question, I remind him that his supplementary must relate to the original question.
Mr Kennedy: Mr Speaker, I am greatly cautioned by what you have said. I welcome the Minister’s reply. On the issue of road safety, to which I believe my question is linked, will the Minister undertake to consult with her ministerial colleague, the Minister for Regional Development, with a view to identifying accident black spots on the Province’s roads, and take specific action, where possible, to address any shortcomings in road surfacing and design in order to reduce accident risk?
Mr Speaker: Order. I warned the Member, and he is almost challenging the ruling from the Chair. The Member was allowed to get away with it on the first occasion, but he will not get away with it on what is the third occasion.
Mrs Foster: My Department has ongoing engagement with both DRD and the Police Service of Northern Ireland on what can be done to lessen the number of accidents on our roads. There is no such thing as bad roads causing deaths. Deaths are caused by other factors; although roads may be a contributing factor, they are not the only factor.
Mr Gallagher: Does the Minister agree that one of the frustrating problems surrounding convictions for serious offences such as drink-driving is that a ban in this jurisdiction does not have any effect across the border, and vice versa? Will the Minister provide an update on work to harmonise penalties across the island? Will she provide any dates for the introduction of legislation to that effect?
Mrs Foster: In February 2006, the then United Kingdom Minister of State for Transport, Dr Stephen Ladyman, and his then Irish counterpart, Martin Cullen, announced that the United Kingdom and Ireland intended to co-operate as soon as possible on the mutual recognition of driver disqualification.
In July 2006, the UK Cabinet Domestic Affairs Committee gave clearance, subject to discussions among officials on funding requirements for the courts, for proposals to proceed on the mutual recognition of driver disqualifications between the United Kingdom and Ireland. There was public consultation on the matter from 13 February 2007 to 8 May 2007, and all responses were positive. As a result, subordinate legislation is required in Northern Ireland and GB. Officials in the United Kingdom and Ireland are working closely together in order to initiate the mutual recognition of driver disqualifications as soon as is practicable. It is my hope that that will happen soon.
Unfortunately, the matter of penalty points is more complex. The question of whether it is possible to speed up the project was raised with me most recently at the North/South Ministerial Council. I am hopeful that we can push ahead and that the issue of driver disqualifications will be dealt with in the near future.
Atomic Energy Authority Technology Figures
2. Mr B McCrea asked the Minister of the Environment, further to her recent comments following the publication of the Atomic Energy Authority Technology figures on Northern Ireland greenhouse gas emissions, what steps she is taking to ensure that the methodology and data sources used to measure emissions are accurate. (AQO 573/08)
Mrs Foster: The Member is referring to my comments about the recent publication, ‘Greenhouse Gas Inventories for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: 1990–2005’, which was compiled by Atomic Energy Authority Technology, now known as AEA Technology. That report indicated that total greenhouse gas emissions were down by 6% in 2005 and that carbon dioxide emissions were down by 4% on 1990 levels. Previous publications indicated that figures for Northern Ireland were above the base year levels.
As the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations bring forward the draft climate change Bill, with its UK target of a 60% reduction in carbon dioxide emission by 2050, Members are aware of the increasing significance that is attached to emission calculations. It is important, therefore, that there is a consistent and credible understanding of Northern Ireland’s true position. Hence, my officials have initiated work with AEA Technology in order to examine the major data sources and the methods that are applied to calculate Northern Ireland’s emissions across the energy, business, industry, domestic and agriculture sectors. That will provide for improved accuracy and an understanding of emission trends. It is also intended that that work will provide a methodology to estimate future levels of emissions relative to targets, and I hope that that work should be completed in March 2008.
Mr B McCrea: Linked to my original question about atomic energy and the need for proper questioning, the Windscale pile issue, the Republic’s Health Research Board’s figures that indicate that no environmental factors were at play in a cluster of Down’s syndrome births and tackling the incidence of cancer in County Louth that was found to be normal by the National Cancer Registry in Ireland, will the Minister indicate whether she thinks it is safe for Ireland, Northern Ireland or any other part of the United Kingdom to consider atomic energy as a viable source of energy?
Mr Speaker: Once again, the Member’s supplementary question relates in no way to the original question. The Member’s question concerns health. Members — on all sides of the House — must link supplementary questions to the original question, and that supplementary question certainly did not do that. We will move on.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What is the Minister’s Department doing to ensure year-on-year decreases in carbon dioxide and other emissions?
Mrs Foster: That question applies across the entire Government. In May 2006, OFMDFM published ‘First Steps Towards Sustainability: A Sustainable Development Strategy for Northern Ireland’, and a supporting implementation plan was published in November 2006. That strategy’s key objective is to reduce emissions, principally by promoting energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy, including biofuels in transport. Therefore, many Departments have a role to play in reducing emissions.
As Members would expect, my Department is making significant progress, particularly with the draft climate change Bill, consultation on the carbon reduction commitment and the promotion of the EU emissions trading scheme. The Department is also leading the way in getting its own house in order by improving the recycling of office waste from 32% in 2004 to 71% in 2006 and by reducing travel. Despite a 4% overall increase in staff numbers, the DOE has reduced the number of flights taken by its staff by 22% on the previous year — something of which the staff can be justifiably proud.
Lord Morrow: What, in the Minister’s opinion, are the most significant sources of emissions in Northern Ireland?
Mrs Foster: Carbon dioxide emissions in Northern Ireland are mostly caused by power stations, transport and residential combustion. Those sectors accounted for approximately 85% of carbon dioxide emissions and just over 60% of the total emissions in 2005.
Agriculture is still a significant source of other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, and has contributed to over 20% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in 2005.
Mature Garden Trees
3. Mrs Long asked the Minister of the Environment what plans she has to prevent mature garden trees being destroyed at weekends, particularly by property developers. (AQO 555/08)
Mrs Foster: I acknowledge that when mature garden trees are cut down, local residents would like to see intervention by an official from my Department, in the belief that that will immediately stop tree felling. However, it is not an offence to cut down a tree unless it is covered by a tree preservation order or is within a conservation area.
A provisional tree preservation order can be made relatively quickly, although it must be recognised that it still takes time to make such an order, particularly over a weekend. It is not possible to provide immediate, on-the-spot protection because various officers are required to check records to see whether the trees are protected, and, if not, to assess the condition of the trees and to draw up the appropriate documentation and maps required for a provisional tree preservation order.
Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for her answer and for correspondence that I have received recently from her. Given that tree felling is now literally clearing the way for the submission of planning applications, as opposed to construction, is it not worth looking at new legislation to allow intervention in order to make a timely assessment of the value of the trees before any further felling is undertaken? Many developers feel that they have complete free rein to clear sites at weekends and on bank holidays.
Mrs Foster: I said that a provisional tree preservation order could be made relatively quickly. Indeed, the law was changed some three years ago to allow that to take place. Also at that time, the legislation did away with clauses that allowed those who might be affected by a tree preservation order to claim compensation.
I appreciate residents’ concerns about the issue. I spoke to divisional officers who told me that they get about two weekend call-outs a year. Although there is no dedicated emergency team, I understand that in the Member’s constituency, emergency calls are usually fielded by the divisional planning office, and officers try to go out and deal with such issues.
The number of incidents of tree felling at weekends is, therefore, relatively small and does not warrant the level of resources that would be required to set up a dedicated, on-call, 24-hour team. I have been told that it takes four different members of staff, believe it or not, to make a tree preservation order, and therein lies part of my resource difficulties.
Mr P Ramsey: Will the Minister outline what she will do to improve the Environment and Heritage Service’s enforcement rates, following the publication of the recent Criminal Justice Inspectorate report?
Mrs Foster: Enforcement is taken forward not by the Environment and Heritage Service, but by the Planning Service. I welcome the recent Criminal Justice Inspectorate report, which gives us an opportunity to examine areas that it has signposted. It would be wrong of me to refer to that before my Department has had a chance to take into account what it says in detail on that issue.
Mr Buchanan: The protection of trees in Northern Ireland is an important issue. Will the Minister explain to the House how a tree preservation order is made?
Mrs Foster: There are two ways of making a tree preservation order. Under article 65 of The Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991, the Department may give notice of intention to make a tree preservation order to the owner and occupiers of the land, who have 28 days from the date of the notice in which to comment.
The order does not take effect until it has been confirmed by the Department. Alternatively — and this is the power that came in three years ago under article 65A — the Department may make a provisional tree preservation order that takes immediate effect on the date specified, providing protection for the trees. A tree preservation order with immediate provisional effect must be confirmed — rather like spot listing — within six months of the date of the order, otherwise the protection afforded to the trees expires.
4. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of the Environment to outline what steps have been taken to ensure that large-scale, and in particular, out-of-town retail development, does not impact negatively on town centres and neighbouring smaller towns and villages. (AQO 594/08)
Mrs Foster: Retail policy in Northern Ireland is presently contained in a number of documents, including the ‘Regional Development Strategy for Northern Ireland 2025’; ‘Planning Policy Statement 5, Retailing and Town Centres’; ‘Draft Planning Policy Statement 5, Retailing, Town Centres and Commercial Leisure Developments’; and the development plans for the area to which the planning applications relate.
During July 2006, a revised draft of PPS 5 was published for consultation. The revised policy proposed in the draft strengthens the existing policy that tests what will control out-of-town retail development. Comments on the draft are presently being considered. Publication of the final policy is subject to the outcome of a judicial review hearing that is scheduled for the end of November 2007.
Mr Dallat: I welcome the Minister’s response. The Minister is aware that up to 50% of towns and villages in Britain have been left without a single shop, post office or bank. When will the Minister bring forward planning proposals that will offer fair and decent protection for independent and small retailers, who are still the heartbeat of rural communities, towns and villages?
Mrs Foster: The Department of the Environment believes that what the Member outlined is being provided through PPS 5 and the consultation process that is ongoing. There are approximately 75 applications for out-of-centre or out-of-town retail developments.
The Department has recently spoken to people in Banbridge and Lisburn regarding out-of-town development. Those people believe that it is helping the town and city involved, and they think that both Banbridge and Lisburn are doing well. Although I take on board what the Member has said, it is not always the case in particular towns.
Mr K Robinson: I noted the Minister’s answer to the previous question. Will the Minister undertake to take steps to establish a comprehensive and reliable footfall figure for all town centres and out-of-town shopping centres across the Province so that an accurate assessment of the impact of out-of-town shopping centres can be made?
Mrs Foster: PPS 5 requires that all applications for out-of-centre or out-of-town retail developments over 1000 sq m gross retail floor space should be accompanied by information in the form of a retail impact assessment. The Member will know that that includes: the applicant’s approach to site selection; the availability of suitable alternative town centre sites; its likely trading impact on existing centres; consideration of the accumulative impacts of the proposal; recently completed retail developments; and outstanding planning permissions for retail developments.
Some people may point out that that is all very well, that the applicant could submit that retail impact assessment, but no one knows that it is not going to favour the applicant. That retail impact assessment is carefully analysed by officials from my Department who undertake a series of checks and tests to assess the acceptability of the information provided. Those are carried out before the application is approved, and provide a fair and balanced assessment of the retail impact.
Mr Simpson: Will the Minister give details on how the recruitment process is progressing for new planners, and approximately how many her Department needs to deal with the long waiting list?
Mrs Foster: It is no secret in the House, or, indeed, outside it, that we have had some difficulties in retaining staff in the Planning Service over the past number of years.
The professional and technical officer (PTO) grade is the normal recruitment grade for specialist planners. Promotion boards are generally used to fill vacancies at other levels. Currently, the Planning Service has 29 vacancies at that grade, representing 17% of the PTO staff complement. A competition for casual PTOs has just concluded, and 44 candidates were considered suitable for posting in the agency. Pre-appointment checks are under way, and the first of those staff should be available in early December. A casual appointment lasts for 51 weeks.
Environment and Heritage Service
5. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of the Environment what action she is taking to increase funding for the Environment and Heritage Service. (AQO 556/08)
Mrs Foster: Last year, the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) secured additional funding of £0·75 million to curb the growing threat of illegal activity in waste management and to enhance the programme of designation of areas of special scientific interest. Next year, the grant-aid budget for listed buildings will increase by £1·5 million. As part of the Budget 2007 exercise, I have bid for further resources to develop EHS environmental-crime and better-regulation teams. The Executive Committee will discuss the proposals from all Departments, and it will then agree the overall allocations for the three Budget 2007 years. As the Member knows, the draft Budget will be published very soon.
Following a period of consultation, the final Budget will be published later in the year. It should be noted, however, that the Budget requires Departments and their agencies to deliver efficiency savings over the next three years. That is a matter for EHS, and the funding must be viewed in that context.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that urgent action is required on matters as diverse as delays in the planning process, the protection of areas of special scientific interest, which she mentioned, and the promotion of biodiversity and climate change? How does she intend to direct her Department’s spending to meet those needs?
Mrs Foster: I am sorry that the Member was not with me when I was in a Budget bilateral with my friend the Minister of Finance and Personnel. We have made various bids in relation to the matters he has raised. Those will become clear in the near future.
Mr Ross: Will the Minister indicate what impact EHS has had in combating environmental crime?
Mrs Foster: EHS has had a significant impact on dealing with environmental crime. The environmental crime section is responsible for investigating illegal waste incidents and deals with upwards of 1,400 reports of alleged illegal waste activities per year. In 2006, the number of successful prosecutions taken against those committing waste offences was 112. Six of those were at Crown Court level; they were the first convictions for environmental offences in the Crown Court in Northern Ireland.
Additionally, EHS has referred a number of cases to the Assets Recovery Agency for criminal-confiscation and civil-recovery proceedings. Through the efforts of EHS, the number of water-pollution incidents has also fallen from 1,560 in 2001 to 1,170 in 2006. The number of incidents in 2006, which have been referred to the Public Prosecution Service, currently stands at 42.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister accept the criticism in the Criminal Justice Inspectorate report, to which she has already referred, that EHS is failing to protect the environment? Does she now recognise the need for the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency in the light of that report?
Mrs Foster: I do not remember reading those words in the Criminal Justice Inspectorate report. However, in relation to his question about an environmental protection agency, I remain open-minded about the recommendations of the review of environmental governance, including whether there should be an independent environmental protection agency. I will carefully consider my approach to environmental governance and, in so doing, take account of the review recommendations, resource considerations, the views of the Environment Committee on which the Member sits, and of any points that stakeholders would like to make. As the Member is aware, I made a commitment to Mr Ford that I would allow him to have those figures before Christmas. That commitment still stands and we should be in a position to make more headway towards the end of the year.
Mr Armstrong: Is the Minister satisfied that EHS has sufficient funding to ensure that it can protect the integrity of Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway?
Mrs Foster: The World Heritage Site issue does not really come under the subject of EHS resources. However, I am sure that there is no Minister in the Executive who would not say yes to more resources. I am certainly one Minister who would.
Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre
7. Mr McKay asked the Minister of the Environment if she will provide the full Planning Service report and recommendations in relation to the planning application for the Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre, to the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee of the Environment. (AQO 572/08)
Mrs Foster: A letter was written to the Environment Committee on 10 October 2007 that explains why I am withholding the report at present and assures the Committee of my commitment to make the report available when a final decision on the application is reached.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Can the Minister confirm whether UNESCO was ever supportive of the private application and whether it approved and was impressed by the proposal, as was suggested by Ian Paisley in a letter to the Heritage Lottery Fund?
Mrs Foster: The Member knows fine well that the only time that UNESCO will comment on an application is when one is brought to that particular body by a Government. I have not yet done that. When I do, the Member will be in possession of all the relevant information.
Mr Neeson: I remind the Minister that the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment also has great interest in this issue. Can the Minister tell the House whether the other major stakeholders that are involved in the visitors’ centre project, particularly Moyle District Council and the National Trust, have been included in discussions?
Mrs Foster: Yes, indeed. After 10 September 2007, the Planning Service engaged in a process with the applicant and the other major stakeholders that the Member has rightly identified. I understand that those meetings are continuing. When the initial round of discussions is complete, I expect to speak to Planning Service officials in order to find out how matters have progressed. When they believe that matters have come to a conclusion, Planning Service officials will provide me with a final report. I will then make my decision.
Mr O’Loan: On 11 September 2007, the Minister expressed her amazement that the planning application for a visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway had been outstanding since 2002 and that, therefore, she felt obliged to consider it immediately. It is now known that 23 article 31 applications, which are even older than that, have not yet been decided on by the Minister. Does she understand that Members are even more amazed by the total incompatibility of those positions? Will she attempt to reconcile those quite contradictory positions?
Mrs Foster: I am happy to reconcile those positions, which are not at all contradictory. The Member is quite right: when I came to office there was a large backlog of article 31 applications. The Member is aware of that because I sent him the figures in a written answer. One of those applications goes back to the 1960s. I have asked the head of the strategic projects unit to write to all of the applicants whose pre-1999 applications have not been dealt with to ask them to provide information that will allow Planning Service to determine the outcome of those applications. If that information is not provided, the applications will be refused. That is the situation.
8. Mr McHugh asked the Minister of the Environment for her assessment of the protection of built heritage within towns, villages and the countryside; and to make a statement on over development and the enforcement of planning regulations. (AQO 571/08)
Mrs Foster: My Department seeks to protect and conserve the built heritage of towns, villages and the countryside by listing buildings of special architectural or historical interest and by designating conservation areas and areas of townscape character. PPS 6, ‘Planning, Archaeology and the Built Heritage’ and its addendum on areas of townscape character set out my Department’s planning policies for the protection and conservation of built heritage. Both documents embody my Department’s commitment to sustainable development and environmental stewardship.
In respect of concerns that have been expressed about overdevelopment, I can confirm that policy provisions, specifically on the intensification of development in existing residential areas, are currently being considered by a group of officials from my Department and the Department for Regional Development (DRD). More recently, the Planning Service issued a circular on my instruction to all its professional planners in order to remind them of the need to consider fully the impact of development on established residential character when processing applications for new residential development.
As for the enforcement of planning control, there are dedicated enforcement teams in each divisional office. Unauthorised works that would adversely affect a listed building or the character of a conservation area or an area of townscape character are given high priority by those teams.
Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answer. I am delighted that that amount of work is ongoing on the matter. Will the Minister say whether she has been able to work with EHS to ensure that the enforcement, and that all development —
Mr Speaker: I apologise for interrupting the Member. Perhaps he might like to put his question in writing to the Minister and get a written answer.
1. Mr Easton asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what action he was taking to ensure the most efficient and effective use of public expenditure. (AQO 502/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): It is the responsibility of all Ministers, and their Departments, to ensure that resources are used in the most efficient and effective manner possible. As part of the 2007 Budget process, each Northern Ireland Department will achieve a minimum of 3% per annum cash-releasing efficiencies over the period 2008-09 right through to 2010-11. The resources that will be made available will be used to fund improvements in public services. In order to facilitate the delivery of further savings, my Department has formed the view that there should be a performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU) to examine the scope for further efficiencies — and for improvement in delivery and performance — both within Departments and across the wider public sector.
Mr Easton: Has the Minister made any estimation of the increased amount that could be made available in the comprehensive spending review (CSR) period through the work of PEDU?
Mr P Robinson: I am reluctant — and it might be inappropriate — to set a specific figure in case people believe that I am setting an upper limit. Instead, it is my intention that the performance and efficiency delivery unit would facilitate an increase in the overall rate of annual cash-releasing savings to be delivered by Northern Ireland Departments over the CSR period from 3%, under current plans, to a minimum of 5%, which is in line with the upper end of the scale for Whitehall Departments. However, I say to the Member for North Down that it is not solely an issue about efficiency. The “P” in PEDU stands for “performance”. Therefore, it is also an issue of getting more for the same, more for less, or the same for less.
The Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee (Mr O’Dowd): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I would like to explore this performance and efficiency delivery unit further with the Minister of Finance. Its title and remit are areas that I would like to explore. In a recent speech to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountability (CIPFA), the Minister said that:
“PEDU will have authority to scrutinise and review, critically, the nature of spending in all areas … Membership will be limited to a few respected individuals … I am particularly keen that the PEDU will look at how we spend our money at present and what we achieve in terms of quality public services.”
Is the Minister in danger of setting up a unit that will undertake the work of the Assembly’s scrutiny Committees? How will the unit report back to the Assembly? It appears that — and I await explanation of it — we are in danger of setting up a quango at the heart of Government.
Mr P Robinson: The functions to be carried out are functions that are already held by the Department. Therefore, we are getting a specialised unit to examine a particular area of activity. I do not believe that there is an issue that should concern the Member, particularly for someone who comes from an Audit Committee background. I have already agreed that I will bring details of the unit to the Committee for Finance and Personnel. When it comes to the consideration of the panel members, I will be happy to talk to the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of that Committee about those who will be involved. The unit’s role is the role of any responsible Department of Finance and Personnel — looking to see that we are getting value for money, and that the Departments are delivering in accordance with the allocations that have been made to them.
I would have thought that the Member would have rejoiced about that, rather than expressing doubts about the process.
Mr Beggs: Concentrating on the words “efficient” and “effective”, which were used in the original question, does the Minister acknowledge that, in the past, children’s services here have been underfunded compared to services in the rest of the United Kingdom? That underinvestment was highlighted in a report by the Commissioner for Children and Young People. Is the Minister aware of the considerable international evidence that shows how it is both efficient and effective to invest in —
Mr Speaker: Order. I do not how many times I need to say this, but once again I remind Members that they must as far as possible ensure that their supplementary questions relate to the original question. I will rule supplementary questions out of order if they do not relate to the original question.
I now call Mr Durkan to ask a supplementary question.
Mr Durkan: The original question asked about the efficient and effective use of public expenditure, and the Minister’s answer touched on the fact that that is the responsibility of all Ministers. Given that, does the Minister further agree that it is the responsibility of the entire Assembly, including, as Mr O’Dowd has said, the various departmental Committees?
I accept the need for a performance and efficiency delivery unit in the Department of Finance and Personnel such as the one that the Minister described. However, there is also a need for the Assembly to address more effectively, in real time, issues that involve the efficient and effective use of public expenditure. I ask the Minister to address that. It is not enough for us to rely on the very good work that the Public Accounts Committee carries out on accounts and past matters. Additional Committees in the style of the Public Accounts Committee could be established that could interrogate particular people and investigate incidences of waste of money, cost of government, inefficient use of resources, and non-performing programmes.
Mr P Robinson: I accept that the Assembly has, through its scrutiny Committees and other Committees, a considerable role to play in examining the performance and efficiency of each Department. The latter part of the Member’s questions flows from a question — which I did not quite get to answer — that his colleague from East Londonderry asked at a previous Question Time. That question was about the ability to respond — in real time, as the Member has put it today — to some of the issues that arise. The Member’s suggestion seems to make good sense. However, the difficulty with his proposal is that if members of the Audit Committee, or anyone who is involved in the audit process, become involved while matters are ongoing, it becomes more difficult for them to be critical of what has happened at the end of the process — they are sucked into the system. Perhaps, therefore, the Assembly and its Committees have more of a role to play in calling in ongoing projects. I am certainly quite happy to facilitate the work of any Committee that wants to get involved with financial details on an ongoing basis.
Mr Speaker: Questions 2 and 3 have been withdrawn.
4. Mr Ford asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to provide an update on rating reform. (AQO 563/08)
Mr P Robinson: The Executive review of domestic rating, which I commissioned in May this year, is now well under way. The consultation finished on 31 August 2007, and a report outlining what people and organisations said was published on 25 September 2007. We are working closely with the Committee for Finance and Personnel, which is scrutinising the consultation report and taking evidence of its own. Once we have the Committee’s response, I intend to bring proposals to the Executive as a matter of priority so that decisions can be announced later this year.
However, earlier this year, my Department engaged the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI) to undertake a study into the effectiveness and impact of the policy to phase out industrial derating. A preliminary draft report has been received from the institute and is being considered by my officials. I expect a final report by the end of the month, and following consideration by the Finance and Personnel Committee and the Executive of that report, I will make a statement to the Assembly of my intentions for the longer term.
In the meantime, I will have to outline my short-term intentions as part of the Budget process. ERINI’s final report will not be available before then, but its preliminary report takes a hard look at the import of those measures and identifies concerns about their potential long-term effect on some firms.
There is enough evidence contained in that report, which I have to hand, on which to base my early decision. I will not say much more about that until the Budget statement. However, Members will be aware of my line of thinking on the matter. If the focus and centrepiece of Government policy is economic growth, it would be inconsistent to make life more difficult for business. The Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland is also considering the case for a small business rate relief, and I hope to have its findings on that by the end of the year.
Mr Ford: We look forward to seeing a detailed statement on industrial derating soon. On domestic rating specifically, does the Minister agree that the capital value of a person’s home on 1 January 2005 is not sufficiently reliable as an indicator of ability to pay to be used as the sole basis for determining the rates?
Given that that statement is taken from his party’s manifesto, does he agree that we need to move towards a system that is more firmly based on ability to pay than the current rating system, even with modifications, is likely to be?
Mr P Robinson: I am glad that the leader of the Alliance Party is such an avid reader of Democratic Unionist Party policy documents. Naturally, I agree entirely with that document; indeed, I may have had some part in its drafting. I would go beyond that; I do not believe that capital value provides for a proper assessment of peoples’ ability to pay — not just for rates but for water charging. There are wider issues at stake, and we must examine those issues, in the interim at least, in order to achieve some changes without the requirement for new legislation. We must find a way to have reliefs that will take ability to pay into account.
Mr McCallister: Will the Minister indicate whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer has advised him that rates relief would be available on that part of the rates that is being attributed to water charging?
Mr P Robinson: The movement of any portion of the rates to cover water charging would not be allowable under the rules governing annually managed expenditure, and, therefore, would not be subject to the reliefs that are currently available. However, the Minister for Regional Development is examining other types of relief in relation to the water-charging system.
Mr Dallat: Will the Minister give the House a flavour of the most significant views emerging on rating reform, and will he tell us how he intends to protect people on low incomes who are not in receipt of housing benefit?
Mr P Robinson: I could do that quite easily. However, if I go down that road, the Member and the Assembly will very quickly learn the direction from which my decisions will come. He is right. The area of activity that is most important to me is to examine, through the consultation, the means to assist those in greatest need. By and large, that means senior citizens, and we must examine ways in which to give assistance to people who, in many cases, have reduced incomes but live in large homes with a high capital value. We are considering those issues, but our overarching purpose should be to examine ability to pay no matter which section of the community is affected.
Mr Speaker: Question No 5 has been withdrawn.
6. Mrs Long asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to report on the implications for the level of the regional rate, if additional water charges are added to the overall rates burden. (AQO 566/08)
Mr P Robinson: Consideration of the level of the regional rate and the way forward in respect of water and sewerage charges are being taken forward by the Executive as part of the ongoing Budget process. However, as the Minister for Regional Development said in his statement earlier today, the amount due to be collected from domestic households through the regional rate will be reduced by the amount of the contribution that households already make through the rates for water and sewerage services. That would amount to £109 million each year, or an average of £160 per rates bill.
Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for his response. Without giving anything away — he clearly wants to surprise us all on Thursday — can the Minister elaborate, in light of the Minister for Regional Development’s announcement to the House today, on his intention to incorporate water charges in domestic rates bills? Does the Minister believe that the current review into domestic rating needs to be fundamentally reassessed in light of that decision, given the changes that are likely to occur, particularly in the level of rates in future years? Is that specifically included in the short-term measures that he referred to earlier in today’s sitting?
Mr P Robinson: At their last meeting, the Executive, when dealing with the report provided by the Minister for Regional Development, saw that the issue was significantly complex that a number of decisions had to be taken.We determined that we had to take the step of considering the size of the overall envelope — in other words, the amount that needs to be put into the three years of the CSR process, under the heading of water.
The figures that were indicated in the statement by the Minister for Regional Development indicate the global parameters within which the public will be asked to address the issue of water. As the Minister said this morning, there will be no requirement for the public to pay for water services in the first of those three CSR years. In the second year, the public will be asked to provide two thirds of the remaining amount, after £160 is taken out of rates and handed over to water. In the third year, they will pay the full amount.
There is some confusion over the rates bill. It is more likely that at the end of the process there will be a household bill, which will comprise a number of elements. One of those elements will be the regional rate, another will be the district rate and another will be the water charge. The community has demanded transparency, and that type of outcome would be transparent as it would show people exactly what they were paying for.
Mr Storey: Can the Minister indicate what the likely level of local taxation would have been in 2008-09 if direct rule had continued?
Mr P Robinson: In the current financial year, 2007-08, the community would already have been paying one third of the water charge bill as a result of the decision that was made under direct rule. Mr, Mrs and Ms Average currently pay £404 for a regional rate and around £300 for a district rate. On top of that, they would have had to pay around £100 for a water charge.
In the year that the Member refers to, 2008-09, given the 10% increase on average in the last five years on the regional rate, the regional rate would be, on average, in the region of £444 as well as two thirds of the water charge, which would have been around £200. As there will be no water bill during the course of the next financial year, the consumer will be saving that amount of money.
Northern Ireland Civil Service: Sick Absence
8. Mr O’Loan asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to give his assessment of the rise in the level of sick absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, from 13·4 days lost per worker in 2005-2006 to 13·7 days in 2006-2007; and what action he was taking to ensure that the current target for reduction will be met. (AQO 545/08)
Mr P Robinson: As I indicated to the Assembly in June in response to a question from Mr Sammy Wilson, I regard sick-absence levels in the Northern Ireland Civil Service as totally unacceptable. I also advised the Assembly that the final figures for 2006-07 would be available in September, and that provisional estimates indicated a higher overall absence level for 2006-07 than for the previous year. The Civil Service was heading in the wrong direction, and I made clear my intention to take urgent and immediate action to address that situation.
I am pleased to report that recent figures indicate that the trend of increasing sick absence has stopped and that absence levels are reducing. Nevertheless, I want to see absence levels reduced beyond that turnaround to make better progress towards the current targets.
I plan to meet all permanent secretaries before Christmas to discuss progress and to ensure that reducing sickness absence remains a top priority in all Departments. As promised, I presented a paper to the Executive in July. Its recommendations, which all ministerial colleagues endorsed, included the robust and consistent application of existing absence-management policies, the need for strong leadership and early intervention by management, and consideration of whether existing policies would deliver the radical shift required.
Recent analysis of sickness absence points to long-term absence as the reason for targets not being met. In the light of the progress made between 2003-04 and 2005-06, that is hugely disappointing. I have convened a small working group specifically to examine long-term absence, with a focus on psychiatric and psychological illnesses, and to explore new ways in which to tackle the problem. I am satisfied that the current targets are appropriate, and there is a strong determination in all Departments to achieve the targets, particularly that of reducing the average sickness absence to 9·5 days by 2010.
Mr O’Loan: I thank the Minister for his interesting answer, and I am pleased to hear the tentative good news. I am sure that everyone supports his efforts to address the issue. No one considers slack management to benefit those at work or those not at work.
In an earlier answer, the Minister mentioned the 3% and 5% efficiency cuts. He has also said that some parts of the organisation can easily stand such cuts but others cannot. Will the crude application of 3% and 5% cuts across the board not significantly contribute to work stress in certain areas, and, consequently, to sickness absence?
Mr P Robinson: The Department has not received any evidence to suggest that the 3% or 5% efficiencies cause absence. However, I set up the working group because some 30% of absences are down to psychiatric or psychological illness.
The performance and efficiency delivery unit exists to ensure that the fairly blunt instrument of applying the same cut to all Departments does not result in merely trimming the fat from one Department and making such an impact on another that it places people under more pressure than they should have to endure. The PEDU will consider that issue, and the working group will specifically examine sickness absence.
Mr Ross: Will the Minister detail how absence in the Civil Service compares with other sectors?
Mr P Robinson: I will detail the comparison with other parts of the public sector and with the private sector. In local government, the average sickness absence for local councils, as measured in March 2007, was 13·73 days, although there was a wide spread of sickness absence. Two councils that deserve mention are Castlereagh Borough Council and Lisburn City Council, which have made a significant reduction of four days in their absence rates over recent years. If the Civil Service could effect similar change, that would be a considerable improvement.
Absence rates in other parts of the public sector are much higher than those in the private sector. However, I sound a note of caution because, although the single figure of days lost in the private sector makes it appear significantly more efficient, its means of calculation differs from that used in the public sector. Although that may put the figures out of kilter, there is a significant and unacceptable gap between absence levels in the public and private sectors. I have asked officials to ensure that Northern Ireland Civil Service policies and procedures reflect organisational best practice.
9. Mr Buchanan asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what plans he had to maximise the sale of surplus assets to allow further capital investment. (AQO 500/08)
Mr P Robinson: The departmental capital allocations in the draft Budget will be predicated on the delivery of capital receipts by Departments throughout the Budget period.
Although Departments have identified a significant level of capital receipts, there is scope to go further. There are strong grounds for a focused approach to asset realisation and a need for a fundamental review of departmental asset bases to ensure that we make the best use of the public assets at our disposal.
Mr Buchanan: What level of asset disposals have the Departments identified over the Budget period?
Mr P Robinson: In the CSR period, £400 million has been identified in the first year, £200 million in the second year and £500 million in the third year. Unquestionably, £1·1 billion is a considerable amount of money to assist us in looking at new assets. Some people, unthinkingly, have suggested that we are selling the family silver, but if you sell assets that you are not using and buy assets that you will use, that is not selling the family silver — it is simply good common sense and a prudent way to use the resources that are available. The various Departments have identified £1·1 billion, and they have worked hard to identify that amount. It is more than has been identified in any other three-year financial period. There are further Government-owned assets that could be disposed of, as they are not being utilised, and we will consider how we ought to deal with such issues. The Executive have made an attempt to thrash that out, and they are examining proposals to address the matter.
Mr P Ramsey: Further to the Minister’s response on freeing up assets, will he outline whether all Departments are working co-operatively with him to ensure that there is free land for social and affordable housing across Northern Ireland? Are any public bodies reluctant to co-operate?
Mr P Robinson: The Executive cover 11 Departments. Therefore, it should not be simply up to the Minister for Social Development to release her assets to provide funds for social and affordable housing. If we are joined-up in our Government, assets can be released from other Departments for that purpose, but, again, one would expect a lead from the Minister for Social Development. Over the period that we are looking at and the work that will be done, we can identify land that can be used for that purpose not only in her Department but in other Departments.
Review of Rating Policy: Budgetary Implications
10. Mr McNarry asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail the budgetary implications for 2008-09, as a result of the current review of rating policy. (AQO 524/08
Mr P Robinson: No decisions have yet been made on any changes to the rating system. Analysis is ongoing, and preferred options have not yet been identified. In light of that, it is not yet possible to detail the budgetary implications for 2008-09. Nevertheless, assumptions have been made and a range of scenarios have been modelled to inform the draft Budget, which is due to be published shortly. Furthermore, the outcomes of the review will be announced later this year, and they will be available to inform final decisions on the Budget which will be taken early in 2008.
Mr McNarry: As a result of the proposed additional water element of rates, how much of the additional revenue over and above current rates will be raised by water charging during 2009-10 and 2010-11?
Mr P Robinson: Hopefully, that will be a matter for the Executive to discuss tomorrow. On Thursday, we are supposed to announce the Budget and to take the final decisions on those matters. The steps that we have taken thus far have been taken by all parties in the Executive. There was widespread agreement that people should not be asked to pay twice for water and, therefore, that there should be a reduction from the rates bill, having identified that portion of the rates bill that had been hypothecated for water in the past.
There is a real difficulty in getting exact figures for either water or rates bills because the Independent Water Review Panel indicated a level of efficiencies. The Executive must decide whether they believe that that level of efficiencies can be realised in the suggested time frame, or even realised at all.
Another principal issue in the panel’s report is the £25 million that is presently being charged to water consumers for road drainage. We have to look at whether that £25 million can be subsumed within DRD so that it frees up that part of the bill. Currently, there are a number of imponderables, which is why I indicated earlier that we had, in effect, agreed the overall funding envelope rather than the specific details of water charging.
Mr Speaker: Order. Time is up for questions to the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
Mr Gallagher: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Shortly after business commenced today, there was discussion about a conversation that you had with the Minister of Finance and Personnel. You stated that you treat all Members in exactly the same way. However, during questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, Mr Danny Kennedy asked a supplementary question that had nothing to do with the original question. Not only did you allow him to ask that question, but you called the deputy First Minister to respond. The leader of the Alliance Party, Mr Ford, then also asked a supplementary question that was totally unconnected to the original question. However, I asked a supplementary to question 3 on the promotion of Northern Ireland in the United States, and not only did you rule me out of order, but you did not call the deputy First Minister to respond. On another supplementary question later, you again acted out of step.
As a Member of this House, I am entitled to be treated in the same way as every other Member. More importantly, the people who elected me to represent them are entitled to fair treatment. I want your comments on that, Mr Speaker.
Mr Speaker: I hope that I am fair to Members on all sides of the House, during what are sometimes difficult debates, and that I have demonstrated that many times. When I called Mr Kennedy, I was conscious of his position as Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Also, his question related to engagements of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which meant that a supplementary question could be wide ranging. As the Member knows, I checked a number of Members from all sides of the House today when their supplementary questions did not relate to the original question. Members can make a judgement on that for themselves.
Mr Gallagher: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not want to single out Members but the facts are the facts, and the Hansard report will reflect that Mr Danny Kennedy’s question went unchecked by you.
Mr Poots: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for the Member to challenge rulings of the Speaker?
Mr Speaker: It is not. I allow as much latitude as possible in particular debates. Question Time can also sometimes be very emotive. When I asked Mr Kennedy to speak, I was conscious of his position as Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I also said, not so long ago, that I am prepared to give Committee Chairpersons some latitude in Question Time. That is exactly what I did today. Given that some Members then decided to ask wide-ranging supplementary questions that did not relate to the original question, I ruled them out of order.
As I said in response to the previous point of order, Members are, once again, coming close to challenging the ruling of the Chair.
I remind Members once again that I hope to be fair, as far as possible, in keeping order in the House. That is vitally important, particularly during emotive debates or Question Time. I get complaints from all sides of the House about supplementary questions, and I am happy to listen to those, but I hope that the Member understands my point of view.
Mr Gallagher: Will you read the Hansard report of the proceedings and reflect on that?
Mr Speaker: That is always done. I am happy to read the Hansard report and reflect on the matter.
Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I confirm that, after my initial supplementary question to the deputy First Minister, the Speaker issued a caution to me in respect of its relevance. I felt that my supplementary question was relevant because of the way in which the original question, which concerned current events that involve the deputy First Minister, was posed. However, I am happy to confirm that later in the proceedings, the Speaker very wisely warned me — almost issuing a yellow card — about a supplementary question that I attempted to ask the Minister of the Environment. I am satisfied, Mr Speaker, that you act fairly and properly.
Mr Speaker: The House has heard what the Member has said.
Debate resumed on amendment to motion:
That this Assembly opposes the introduction of the proposed guidelines on the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland; believes that the guidelines are flawed; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to abandon any attempt to make abortion more widely available in Northern Ireland. — [Mr Donaldson, Mrs I Robinson.]
Which amendment was:
Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert:
“calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, following consultation with the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, to bring forward guidelines on the lawful termination of pregnancy, as defined by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, and the Bourne Judgment case law, and in accordance with the ruling of the Courts.” — [Mr McCallister, Mr Kennedy.]
Mr Buchanan: I rise to support the motion and to be a voice for the unborn child.
To many, 25 October 1967 passed into history without any special significance, and yet, to one section of our population, that date would have the most devastating consequences. On that day, 40 years ago, the Parliament at Westminster passed what was to become known as the Abortion Act 1967 — a most ungodly Act that legislated for the murder of the unborn child.
Under that legislation, it became legal for pregnant women to have an abortion, which has become an everyday occurrence in the United Kingdom. Many who opposed that ungodly Act were told that abortion could take place only in certain circumstances and within strict guidelines, which were: in cases in which the physical or mental health of the mother would be placed in great danger if she were to continue the pregnancy; in cases in which the physical or mental health of her existing children would be placed in greater danger if she were to continue with the pregnancy; or in cases in which there was a risk of serious abnormality in the child. It was claimed that those safeguards would prevent abortion becoming widespread.
Many believed those carefully worded assurances, but it soon became clear that the Abortion Act 1967, amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, permitted abortion on demand. If any one of the aforementioned reasons were cited and accepted by two doctors, there was nothing to prevent a mother from legally ending the life of her unborn child.
Although that law was passed at Westminster, we give thanks to almighty God that, thus far, this Province has been spared from becoming home to such ungodly legislation, which legitimises the murder of the unborn child, on demand.
There is a strong pro-abortion voice from women’s rights organisations and various other groups and individuals, which is asking that legislation be standardised so that abortion can be carried out locally. However, the fundamental right of the unborn child must be established. It is important to note that the child in a mother’s womb is a real and distinct person. Pro-abortionists describe the unborn child in the early stages of pregnancy as a foetus, an embryo, a collection of cells, the potential for life, or mere human tissue in their attempts to dehumanise the child and reduce it to the status of a removed tonsil or a discarded fingernail. Therefore, it is important to establish where, and when, the life of the child begins. That is not when the child is born, or when it reaches a certain stage in the mother’s womb, or even at the point of implantation. Life commences at conception, and it is at that point that the child becomes a real person.
I want to lay some facts before the House. At day 20 the child’s brain, spinal cord and nervous system are established; at day 21 the heart begins to beat; at day 28 the baby’s limbs begin to show and backbone and muscles begin to form; at five to six weeks the baby’s fingers are discerning, its eyes begin to darken and the brainwaves can be detected and recorded; at six to eight weeks, although only one inch in length, the baby’s brain begins to control the movements of the muscles, the jaw is already formed, tooth buds are in place, the stomach produces digestive juices and the kidneys begin to function. That all happens at two months into the pregnancy.
At nine to 13 weeks the baby can respond to touch. It can swallow, squint and wrinkle its forehead. At the end of 16 weeks it has grown to eight to 10 inches in length, the ears are formed, and it is believed that the child can hear its mother’s voice, its own heartbeat and external noises.
With such facts — and more could be produced if time permitted — no one can claim that the baby in the womb is not a distinct person full of life. While various medical terms are used as a cloak in an attempt to justify abortion, the facts remain that 600 unborn children across the United Kingdom’s hospitals are being slaughtered daily. Virtually none of those abortions are performed on women who become pregnant through rape or incest, or because the babies are unhealthy or handicapped or because those pregnancies may cause a threat to the life or health of the mother.
During the course of this one-and-a-half-hour debate, 70 to 80 unborn children will have been murdered through abortion. The methods of abortion are often horrific, with up to 80% carried out by suction curettage, which virtually pulls the baby apart limb by limb.
As we look back, we cringe at the number of Jews who were gassed or murdered by Hitler, and rightly so, yet in today’s so-called civilised society, we witnessed 200,000 abortions across the UK last year, which is 600 a week and 50 to 60 children an hour.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
Mr Buchanan: I support the motion and call on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to abandon any attempt to make abortion more widely available in Northern Ireland.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I rise to speak in favour of the motion and the amendment. However, we need clarification on what exactly happens if the motion, on its own, is adopted by the House. It is understandable that people can become emotional when such issues are debated, and the previous Member has done so. The subject of abortion reaches the deepest feelings of people’s personal, religious and other beliefs. While I am not sure if a legislating, debating Chamber is the correct venue for some of today’s debate, it is understandable that people will use emotive language.
Sinn Féin, despite some propaganda to the contrary, does not support abortion. The simple fact is that it does not support the Abortion Act 1967 being introduced here. The guidelines being discussed today clearly do not have the support and the endorsement of either the House or people in the wider society. In that sense, they are flawed.
However, we are legislators, and we must introduce legislation. It is our duty to ensure that the people we task to carry out work in our public services are protected under the law, regardless of our personal views on the subject. If the motion is agreed today, our medical professionals will be left in limbo. While we do not have the power to annul the draft guidelines, we ask the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to forget about the guidelines, flawed as they are, and to take no further action.
The amendment calls for further action to be taken through Committee discussions on guidelines as defined by several Acts, which seems a common sense course of action.
I am not an expert on the Offences Against The Person Act 1861, the Criminal Justice Act 1945 or the Bourne judgement case law; therefore, further discussion will be necessary in the Committee. That is not the fault of the amendment’s proposers — it is the way the system works and is something that the Speaker is examining as he considers how the House formulates its business.
Setting emotion to one side, what do we do if we pass this motion today? The proposers of the motion must clarify the Assembly’s next course of action. The buck stops here — if not today, in several months or in a year’s time. Members will be required to legislate, based on the guidelines that relate to the termination of pregnancies.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Mrs Iris Robinson, outlined her understanding of situations in which terminations took place in the past. The reasons for a termination — if there are any — are disputed. Members are not medical professionals; medical professionals carry out medical tasks in the remit of the law, which we will set. We have a duty to those medical professionals to ensure that they are protected by the law, and we cannot abdicate that responsibility.
The best way forward is to send the matter back to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and for its members, as local legislators and people who know the moods of the communities that they represent, to draw up guidelines to cover legislative restraints in which they might find themselves, whether from national or international laws. That is the task that we must undertake — unpalatable as that may be to some people.
The proposers of the motion must clarify where they believe that this debate will take us and what measures we must next take. The sentiments expressed in the amendment are laudable, and they too call for the involvement of the Health Committee. I await the comments of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on the subject.
Members will have to act. Legislators must legislate, and — whether in a month, six months or in two year’s time — legislate we must.
Mr Easton: This is a matter of critical importance — literally, a life or death matter. Members are aware that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Act that permits abortion on demand does not apply here. Abortion must be considered only if the life or health of the mother is in critical danger. A moral, and Christian, principle is embedded in the heart of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, who consider a child to be a precious gift from God and believe that every child has a right to life from the moment of conception in the womb. Anyone who has witnessed a perfectly formed child, born prematurely and totally dependent on dedicated doctors and nurses, fighting for its life in an incubator, and who then sees the same child later as a perfectly formed young person, could have no doubt about how precious life is.
We have all seen television pictures of a child growing inside his or her mother’s womb. Could anyone who has watched such pictures conclude that that was anything less than a functioning person, growing and maturing, physically and mentally? What we witnessed is the miracle of creation, and we have no right to interfere by terminating that process — except in exceptional circumstances.
The guidelines that we debate are the result of a determined, and highly organised, campaign by the Family Planning Association, which supports abortion on the grounds that every woman has the right to end an unwanted pregnancy. They are the opening shots in a campaign to make abortion on demand freely available in the Province. The people who legislated in the past — in this Building — resisted such a situation, and it is incumbent on us to resist again. Any legislative body that endorses and provides for abortion on demand has totally lost its way.
The Family Planning Association believes that every woman has the right to end an unwanted pregnancy. That is a coded message, which means that every woman, for whatever reason, has the right to take the life of an unborn child. A pregnancy might not be ended because the life or health of the mother was in danger; rather, continuing with the pregnancy would be socially inconvenient. If Members want to develop a just and moral society, we must be concerned about the justice that we administer to children in the womb.
We are here to speak on behalf of those who are unable to speak for themselves, and we are here to represent every child’s right to life. It is terrible to contemplate how many abortions have been carried out in the United Kingdom since 1967.
A living, breathing child in the womb might one day change the course of history; win a Nobel Prize for literature; become a world leader, doctor, teacher, sports star, or a Minister in the Assembly. Perhaps he or she might live in relative obscurity and be content to be a good father, mother or friend to someone.
Mr Poots: I thank the Member for giving way. I speak as someone who has a close family member with a disability. Will the Member agree that those who support abortion on the basis of a child being born with a deformity are devaluing that child before it is born? Will he also agree that — given that almost seven million children have been aborted since the 1967 Act was passed and that almost two million have been terminated since the House last debated the issue — future generations will look back on this period in the way that we look back on the period when children were used to clean chimneys and people were kept as slaves?
Mr Easton: I thank my honourable friend for those comments, and I fully support his views.
We are here to defend every child’s right to life, and I call on the Assembly to oppose the introduction of the guidelines on the termination of pregnancies. They are flawed, and they will damage and undermine the moral framework of our society. I call on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to abandon any attempt to make abortion more widely available in Northern Ireland.
Mr B McCrea: Everyone in the Chamber would agree that abortion, and anything to do with it, is a tragedy. My party’s purpose in tabling the amendment was in no way to engage in that particular debate, which causes a lot of hurt and concern to many people.
My colleague who proposed the amendment over-generously allowed many interruptions to his speech in order to try and assure Members that our amendment was well-meaning. However, I must address a couple of questions that were asked. The Rt Hon Jeffrey Donaldson asked what was wrong with the original motion. I will explain, because Members talked about correct language and terminology. The motion reads:
“That this Assembly opposes the introduction of the proposed guidelines”.
The problem is that that wording could imply that the Assembly is opposed to any guidelines — although I have heard different views. It could, through the way it has been drafted — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr B McCrea: I am attempting to explain how we view the issue. I have heard several interesting interventions. I commend Mr O’Dowd on his speech and how he put forward his case. The question is what will happen if we vote in favour of the motion? The simple fact is that the Minister is required to produce a set of guidelines. He must do so, or he will fail in his ministerial responsibility: it is a legal imperative.
The amendment seeks to set out a way in which consultation can be undertaken. I understand that some Members would say that we ought to carry out better, or wider, consultation. However, the real issue is that the point of the amendment is to set out, first, that it is right and proper to ask the Health Committee to consider draft proposals — and I know that its Chairperson proposed the motion. Secondly, the amendment calls on the Minister and the Committee to take on board the legal requirements as they stand. Those requirements have been cited in the amendment, and I am assured that they are correct. The Assembly might want to overturn those laws, but that is an issue for Westminster, and there are Westminster MPs in this House who can go and do that.
I pay tribute to Mrs Long who said that if the Assembly wanted to discuss the 1967 Act, Members should have framed a motion in such terms.
This debate is not about the Abortion Act 1967 — that Act does not apply in Northern Ireland. The motion is about ensuring that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety can meet his legal obligations and his ministerial responsibility.
Mr Wells: The honourable Member has missed, to some degree, the whole point of the motion. The motion deals not only with the regulations but is clear and unambiguous in calling on the Assembly to oppose any further liberalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. If the amendment is supported, that part of the motion completely falls, and we will fail to send the clear message to Westminster that the people of Northern Ireland do not want the liberalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland in any shape or form.
Mr B McCrea: I thank the Member for trying to explain the motion to me. I assure him that I did not miss the point. My point is that the amendment was tabled because the motion has led to the wrong debate at the wrong time.
The legal position needs to be sorted out. I am sure that the Minister will speak for himself, but I am happy to debate, at any time, the 1967 Act. Everyone that I have heard speaking during this debate has said that they are not in favour or anything like in favour of extending the Act. However, we need to follow proper procedure. What is the right way in which to do that? It is absolutely right for draft proposals to be brought to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, that the Committee can oversee those proposals and that, if necessary, those proposals can be brought back to the House for a full debate.
If, and when, it is appropriate for Members to discuss those issues further — whether that discussion be to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, to introduce something in its place or to reduce its powers — it should take the form of a proper debate at a time when the Assembly has the appropriate responsibilities.
I believe that we would be unanimous in saying that people want to see a fall in the number of abortions. However, will there ever be a time when there will be no abortions? Abortion in Northern Ireland is illegal except in cases in which it is necessary in order to save the life of the mother or in which continuation of the pregnancy involves the risk of serious injury. That is the law. Whether it is right or wrong, it is the law.
The amendment is an attempt to ensure that, as a first step, there is a proper basis on which to ensure that those professionals who must carry out abortions are in a position to do so legally. It was read out —
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr P Ramsey: I support the motion but not the amendment. For clarification, the text of the amendment is far too narrow. It makes no reference to the flawed guidelines that were being presented or to a wider extensive consultation that will be required to obtain facts on the abortion debate.
Members have talked about being pro-life, but I would not like to hear some of them talk about being against life — that comment is directed at John O’Dowd. I do not understand why he said that he was supporting the motion, only for him to talk against it for five minutes.
For the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, this is the most important debate that is taking place in Northern Ireland at present. I preface my remarks by saying that the SDLP acknowledges the sensitivity of the issue. We are aware that there are many women who have had pregnancies terminated for many reasons. Many of those women are still grieving, and many still question the decisions that they made. It is important to say that we are not here to judge or condemn. In fact, quite the opposite is true, because it is our job to ensure that women who find themselves in that position have help available to them. Groups and agencies that are set up to give support must be given adequate resources to do that particular job.
It is also important to acknowledge honestly that people hold spiritual and religious views on the issue. There is no doubt that many of us have religious beliefs and that our religious backgrounds influence our social thinking and actions.
Mr Shannon: Does the Member agree that a basic human right is that the strong must protect the weak and the vulnerable, and, in this case, the unborn? Does the Member also agree that the pro-abortion myths should be discarded and that the anti-abortion reality should be taken on board?
Mr P Ramsey: I agree. Anyone who saw the ‘Dispatches’ programme on Channel 4 last week would have been appalled. If any part of that liberalisation were brought into Northern Ireland, people would be appalled by it.
For me, as a Christian, the God that I believe in has hopes and a plan for each of us. He loves and values all of us equally, from the moment of conception and right through our lives. We are in the business of upholding — as Jim said — and enabling human rights.
The SDLP position is based on human rights criteria, and the fundamental human right to life clearly takes precedence over all other rights. The SDLP is for the right to live; therefore, it is opposed to any extension of direct termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland. That opposition is based firmly on the unarguable case that, from the point of conception, the child is a human being, and is therefore entitled to human rights. For that reason we are opposed to any extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland. We are also clearly opposed to any liberal interpretation of the law on the matter. That is a point that Members who support the amendment do not understand.
In England and Wales, according to National Health Service figures, there were 193,700 abortions and over 650,000 live births in 2006. In other words, for every three live births, there was one abortion. We lose one child in four as a result of abortions in Britain. Most people in Northern Ireland find those figures appalling; however, they indicate clearly the consequences of liberalisation in practice or attitudes.
I want to talk specifically about the draft guidelines. The SDLP asserts that the medical profession should have a clear working policy based on the law on termination of pregnancy. However, there is ambiguity in the guidelines. The SDLP is deeply concerned that there are any circumstances, other than where extreme medical circumstances leave the mother and medical profession with no other reasonable choice, in which the life of an unborn child can be terminated.
The SDLP is very concerned that the draft guidelines do not adequately clarify the legal position for medical practitioners in a number of areas. For example, in paragraph 2.9, there is a basic legal mistake with reference to when the baby is capable of being born. That section is highly ambiguous and legalistic and does not clarify the position in practical terms but is actually misleading and dangerous to babies. While the child’s right to life is implicit in that paragraph, it is not explicit, and it should be. The Department of Health should have been able to produce a clear guideline — a clear policy statement — thoroughly tested against human rights criteria that recognise equally the lives of the child and the mother.
The SDLP has other concerns in relation to the position of young people, where a court may make a decision that a termination of pregnancy should be carried out against the wishes of the young person. That is stated at paragraph 2.13 of the guidelines. Where are the rights of young girls considered there?
I call on the Department of Health to reinvestigate the matter. As Mrs Hanna said earlier, it is necessary to start the process again. The courts asked for guidelines, but these draft guidelines are clearly flawed. Some Members made the point that we should let legislators draft the guidelines. That is why I am standing here today, as a legislator, trying to protect the interests of children across the board. A number of organisations — and I say this, Mr Speaker, to the Minister — such as Precious Life and Care, have made serious representations to the Department outlining their concerns about the proposed guidelines. I ask the Minister to confirm that those representations were taken on board in framing the Department’s proposed guidelines, and that they will be considered in any future consultation process.
Mr Speaker: I must say to Members that the time for this debate is almost up. However, given the subject of the debate, it is important that we hear from the last Member who is listed to speak, Dr Deeny.
Dr Deeny: Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I was getting worried there.
The debate is not about whether Members are pro-choice or pro-life; it is about the draft guidelines. I am here in a personal capacity to give my views as someone who has been a doctor for 27 years. I have witnessed an abortion. I make no apologies for being pro-life; I am a pro-life doctor. Our lives — the lives of mothers and children — are our most precious gift. Thankfully, like most of my doctor colleagues in the North, I am totally opposed to the introduction of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland, or indeed any relaxation of legislation that would make abortion more available.
I mentioned the Abortion Act 1967. People say that the Assembly should not oppose relaxation of the legislation. However, I support the motion and reject the amendment because, as a doctor, I believe that the amendment will liberalise the law and will make abortion more likely in Northern Ireland.
Most doctors and, indeed, nurses join their noble professions to save and improve lives, not to take them. Human life must always be given priority and precedence over choice. We hear about pro-choice, which is a misnomer. It is the wrong description, because unborn children are not given a choice. In the medical profession, abortion is referred to as “termination of pregnancy”, which is, perhaps, a more precise term.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
A mother’s life is paramount during pregnancy. As has already been pointed out, current legislation allows an abortion to be carried out when there is a serious threat to a mother’s life or, indeed, if there is a 100% certainty that the child will have an abnormality that is incompatible with life. I want to stress that that in no way means a disability: an abortion should never take place when a baby has Down’s syndrome, for instance. An example of incompatibility with life is anencephaly, when there is no brain development whatsoever.
Unfortunately, over 20 years ago, I witnessed two maternal deaths. It is a complete and utter disaster and tragedy. At the time, I remember calling it “whole family devastation” because other children were also involved. It was an awful situation. Pro-life doctors place paramount importance on the mother’s life. Let that be remembered by those who would accuse us otherwise.
As a doctor, I want to make the point that section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967, which deals with the mother’s mental health, has been used to cover a range of problems, including insomnia, anxiety, undue stress, and so on, which account for more than 90% of the reasons that terminations can take place. This afternoon, I read the draft guidelines again. Paragraph 3.6 outlines the reasons that can be given for terminations to be carried out. I reject them as flawed because they will put doctors in an impossible position. Mr O’Dowd, who is not here at present, quite rightly said that the job of legislators is to protect medical professionals and not to put them in a position in which they are forced to carry out procedures against their will.
The guidelines indicate that the reasons that can be given for terminations include: suicide threats; family history of mental-health problems; personal history of mental-health problems; absence of a support structure in the family or outside of it; and history of mental-health problems with previous pregnancies, such as post-natal depression. I know many women who fall into one of those categories. In future, those reasons could be used to justify the taking of an unborn, helpless life. Those reasons are outlined in the flawed guidelines, which is why I have rejected them.
I am one of many conscientious doctors who do not agree with abortion on demand. We would be put in an impossible position because, if we did not go through with those procedures and adhere to the law of the land, we would be prosecuted. Therefore, as a doctor, I urge the Assembly to reject those guidelines. I have heard that people can get terminations in Northern Ireland depending on where they live. That is illegal. Evidence of that must be sought and the Assembly made aware of it.
Last week’s ‘Dispatches’ on Channel 4 has been mentioned. I did not see it, although I know a woman who did. It showed the remnants of an abortion. I challenge the media to show an abortion on television to let the pro-choice people and everyone else see how horrific it is. They will see that it is a procedure that should never be allowed to happen in our society.
I support the motion and reject the amendment because I believe that the guidelines will bring us closer to the day when that awful procedure will be allowed in Northern Ireland.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): It is clear that abortion is an issue that inspires a range of emotions and strongly held views. There are many interested groups and members of the public who have strong and opposing opinions on the emotive subject of abortion. At the outset, let me make it clear that I will not change, or do not propose to change, the law on abortion in Northern Ireland — nor could I, even if I wished to. The purpose of the guidance is not to make it easier or more difficult to obtain an abortion in Northern Ireland; the reason for producing the guidance is to clarify the existing law on abortion and to provide clinical and good practice guidance to health professionals. Those are actions that my Department has been directed to take by the Court of Appeal.
Application of the guidance, when it is finalised, will be a matter of informed clinical judgement that will be made by medical professionals. The Abortion Act 1967, as amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, constitutes abortion law in Great Britain. That has never been extended to Northern Ireland and does not apply here. Abortion law in Northern Ireland is contained in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, the Bourne judgement of 1939 and subsequent case law.
The Bourne judgement is one of the key legal points. In 1938, Dr Alex Bourne, a London gynaecologist, tested the existing law in order to clarify the circumstances in which abortions may be carried out. He was charged under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 of unlawfully carrying out an abortion on a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by a group of soldiers. The Bourne judgement — given in a lower court and never challenged before higher courts — confirmed that under common law it had always been the case that an abortion that had been carried out in good faith for the purpose of preserving the life of the mother did not constitute an offence.
It was also established in case law that abortion was not an offence if carried out in good faith to prevent the risk of serious damage to the mother’s physical or mental health. The proposed guidance does not change any of that. It is in no way an attempt to introduce the provisions of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland by the back door. Let me also make it clear that, under the law of Northern Ireland, abortion is permitted only where it is necessary in order to save the life of the mother or where continuation of the pregnancy would involve the risk of real and serious injury to her physical or mental health, which would be permanent or long term. Those grounds are narrower than those that exist in the rest of the United Kingdom under the Abortion Act 1967. As a result of that, unlike the rest of the UK, abortion in Northern Ireland is a relatively uncommon occurrence.
In 2005–06, the last year for which figures are available, 80 medical abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland. In each of those cases, the law requires the decision to carry out an abortion to be a matter of clinical judgement by medical professionals. In 2006, 1,300 Northern Irish women are recorded as having travelled to Great Britain to undergo an abortion. That year, the number of abortion procedures carried out for women resident in England and Wales was 193,700.
Let me also make it clear that there is no question of my bringing about a situation where abortion is available on demand in Northern Ireland. It is important that Members bear in mind the fact that abortion law falls within the category of criminal law and is a reserved matter. Abortion law is an issue for MPs at Westminster and not one for the Assembly. It is for Parliament at Westminster to legislate on. The Northern Ireland Assembly can only legislate on abortion law with the consent and approval of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward.
During the passage of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Government gave assurances that there would be no change to abortion law in Northern Ireland without the consent of the main parties. More recently, in a parliamentary answer in July 2007, Paul Goggins MP, Minister of State for Northern Ireland, gave the commitment that the Government have no plans to amend the law on abortion in Northern Ireland.
There appears to some confusion about where we stand in respect of the guidance and how it was arrived at. I would like to clear that up. The background to the development of the guidance is that, in 2001, the Family Planning Association instigated a judicial review that sought to have the Department issue guidance about the circumstances in which abortion provision may be obtained in Northern Ireland and to investigate the alleged difficulties in obtaining services for the termination of pregnancy.
First, in November 2004, the Court of Appeal ruled that it required my Department to consider what steps it should take to inquire into the adequacy of termination of pregnancy services in Northern Ireland, including aftercare. The Court of Appeal further required that, following such an inquiry and after appropriate consultation with concerned organisations, my Department should issue appropriate guidance.
The next step, following a clear instruction from the court, was for my Department to set up a group, chaired by the Chief Medical Officer, to take that matter forward. A wide range of professional advice was sought. There was a consensus that guidance should be produced for clinicians and GPs that should cover issues such as: clarification of the legal opinion; conscientious objection; informed consent; standardisation of pre-abortion and post-abortion care across Northern Ireland; counselling services; and good clinical practice.
The third stage was the development of draft guidance, with input from a wide range of health professionals, including obstetricians, psychiatrists, midwives, GPs and legal advisers. As I have already stressed, the purpose of the guidance is to clarify the existing law on abortion in Northern Ireland, and to provide guidance on good clinical practice.
Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member give way?
Mr McGimpsey: No. I am reading a statement — it is an important statement, and I want to read it straight through.
The fourth stage was to issue draft guidance to interested parties on 9 January this year, for comment by 20 April. Officials from my Department met and received written responses from groups and individuals representing a wide range of opinions and positions, including pro-life and pro-choice groups, religious organisations and medical professionals. Among the issues raised in the responses were: the interpretation of current law and legal principles; provision of information for women; clinical assessment, particularly in respect of mental health; conscientious objection by health professionals; consent and confidentiality arrangements for minors; and information on referral procedures and access services.
We all know that the range of opinion on this matter is wide and varied. It is an issue that has been the subject of heated and lengthy debate for many years. It is an issue of the utmost seriousness — indeed, it is too serious an issue with which to play party politics. I want to ensure that the matters raised are given the most careful and balanced consideration. The Court of Appeal’s direction to produce guidance gave us an opportunity to at least provide some clarity for those people, including women and clinicians, who have to deal with this issue on a personal level. Indeed, many clinicians have welcomed the move to provide a clear framework within which they have to take those most difficult decisions.
I have therefore asked the Chief Medical Officer to convene and chair a departmental group — which will include the relevant professional and legal advisers — to consider the way forward, taking into account the responses to the draft guidance. That group will have completed its deliberations and developed further drafts in the first half of 2008, which will form the basis for the next stage. Responses from interested groups and individuals will be sought before the redrafted guidance is put to the Assembly Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The Committee will have an opportunity to scrutinise the draft guidance and make its views known before final adoption. My point is that the guidance as it currently stands is very much a work in progress.
Again, it is important to stress that there has been no change, nor is there any proposed change, to the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. When we produce finalised guidance, it will simply restate the existing law and also provide clinical and good-practice guidance for health professionals.
It is to be hoped that the guidance will provide clear directions for clinicians who are faced with requests for abortions.
Mr Kennedy: Members on all sides of the House have clearly expressed their opposition to any extension of the Abortion Act 1967. I welcome that because it concurs with my own strongly held personal views. I also welcome the clarity of the Minister’s statement. I hope that all Members heard it and listened attentively to the important points that were raised.
In moving the amendment, my honourable friend Mr McCallister drew attention to the 8 October 2004 judgement of Lord Justice Nicholson. Lord Justice Nicholson said:
“This case does not involve an attempt to liberalise the law on abortion. It is no part of the court’s function to lend itself to such an attempt. The Westminster Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly is the proper forum for any debate on abortion. The available evidence supports the view that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland do not wish to have the Abortion Act 1967 which applies in Great Britain to be extended to Northern Ireland.”
I strongly agree with those sentiments. It is abundantly clear that when instructing the Minister and Department to issue guidelines on the lawful termination of pregnancy, the court did not regard itself, in any shape or form, as allowing an attempt via an administrative decree to undermine Northern Ireland’s law on abortion. As the amendment makes clear, the guidelines must — and I emphasise the word “must” — be consistent with the existing legal position on abortion. If that were not the case, I could not support the amendment. If, in a fit of unwarranted judicial activism, the court had given carte blanche to the Minister and the Department:
“to make abortion more widely available in Northern Ireland.”
by means of guidelines, I would speak against their introduction. I say that as a strong opponent of any attempt to extend the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland.
The amendment explicitly reaffirms the existing abortion law in Northern Ireland. It states, as did the court, that the guidelines must be consistent with the existing law. In my view, therefore, it opposes any attempt to use the guidelines as a means of bypassing or undermining the existing law. As my honourable friend Mr McCallister said, the amendment is about the rule of law. That requires the Minister and his Department to issue guidelines on the lawful termination of pregnancy.
The court’s intention in instructing the Minister and the Department to issue guidelines was not to make abortion more widely available in Northern Ireland. In fact, the opposite is explicitly the case. I respectfully draw that to the Minister’s attention; I know that he has already given due regard to that aspect of the court’s judgement. It is right that we approach the guidelines with the determination that the law in Northern Ireland should not be undermined. The purpose of the amendment, in reasserting the legal position of abortion in Northern Ireland, is to ensure that no such slippage occurs in this jurisdiction.
The debate has provided us with a good opportunity to examine the issue. The texts of the motion and the amendment have clouded the overall issue slightly, but it is abundantly clear that there is no support for any extension of the Abortion Act 1967. That is very welcome.
I am aware of the existence of the new pro-life group in the Assembly. Perhaps it will have an early opportunity to bring forward a suitable motion on a cross-party basis that the Ulster Unionist Party can give unanimous support to.
Mr Donaldson: I thank all of the Members who participated in the debate, which has been measured and considered. Clearly, there are strongly held views on abortion, and it was right that the motion was brought forward at this time. I apologise that I had to be temporarily absent from the Chamber for a short time and that I missed some of the comments that were made by other Members.
It is clear that there is strong public opposition to the draft guidelines in their current form and to any move to liberalise the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. That is also the clear view across the Chamber. However, the purpose of the motion is twofold. First, it is to establish that the guidelines, as currently drafted, are fundamentally flawed. Secondly, it is to send out a clear message to the Parliament at Westminster that the Assembly opposes any attempt to liberalise the law on abortion in Northern Ireland.
I have listened carefully to the points made on the amendment by Members from the Ulster Unionist Party John McCallister, Basil McCrea and Danny Kennedy, and by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. However, the amendment does not reject the current draft guidelines as the basis for further consultation. In fact, the Minister intends to take the guidelines in their current form as the basis for going forward to the Health Committee.
I cannot recommend such a course of action when I have two legal opinions stating that the guidelines, in their current form, are deeply flawed. Therefore, before the Minister brings forward any further proposals to the Health Committee, he must go back to the drawing board on the draft guidelines.
There is clearly a problem. If Sinn Féin is going to support the amendment, then that party must be clear that the amendment does not reject the draft guidelines in their current form. More than 100,000 people in Northern Ireland have lodged their objection to the proposed draft guidelines in a petition, and there are legal concerns about the draft guidelines themselves.
Mr McGimpsey: In my speech, I made the point that the draft guidelines are work in progress and are being reviewed by the Chief Medical Officer and a group in the Department. When they have completed their deliberations, they will develop further draft guidance in the first half of 2008. That draft guidance will go out for consultation, and the results of that consultation will go to the Assembly Committee.
Mr Donaldson: I thank the Minister for that clarification. In those circumstances, why on earth is the Ulster Unionist Party bringing forward an amendment when the motion does nothing to prevent the Minister from doing precisely what he has said he will do?
Mr O’Dowd: The Member appears to be suggesting that we go back to the Health Committee with a blank piece of paper. If that is not the case, then what is he suggesting? Is the Health Committee to be involved in the process? This is important to Sinn Féin. Local people and local legislators should be involved in drawing up the guidelines. If that is what the Member is suggesting, then Sinn Féin is more than happy to support the motion.
Mr Donaldson: The motion does not prevent the Minister from bringing forward new proposals to the Health Committee. The current proposals are fundamentally flawed and should not be the basis for further consultation. Unfortunately, the amendment does not make that clear. It fails to clarify that position, which is why I cannot support it. I urge Members opposite to bear that in mind when deciding how they vote.
The motion does not prevent the Minster or the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety from examining the issue. The DUP’s view is that what is on the table now is fundamentally flawed.
My second point, which I direct particularly to the Member for Lagan Valley Mr Basil McCrea, relates to the timing of today’s motion: at this precise moment, a House of Commons Committee is debating the draft human tissue and embryology Bill. As it deliberates, a Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris proposes to table an amendment, the effect of which would be to extend the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland. Therefore, what better time than now for the Assembly to send a clear signal that it is not in favour of liberalising the law on abortion?
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Donaldson: The Assembly is not in favour of extending the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland, and the amendment fails to send any such message to the national Parliament. The DUP cannot accept the amendment, because it does not send out the signal that local legislators should deal with abortion. As the Secretary of State has said, it would be wrong for Parliament to legislate without the consent of the Assembly. Today, the Assembly must put down a clear marker on its position: that is precisely what the motion does and precisely what the amendment fails to do.
I thank the Member for Foyle Mr Pat Ramsey, who is the vice chairman of the all-party pro-life group, for his excellent contribution to the debate. I thank the SDLP for its support of the motion, which is much appreciated, because it proves that the issue transcends political and religious beliefs in Northern Ireland and that there is cross-party and cross-community support for the Assembly’s stance today.
I commend the Member for West Tyrone Dr Deeny for his excellent exposition, from a medical perspective, on the guidelines. He outlined why it is important that the Assembly approves the motion and not the amendment: the motion seeks to ensure that the medical profession receives the correct guidance that is truly within the current law. In contrast, should the Department proceed with the draft guidelines, they would go beyond the current law.
I could talk at length about the flaws in the guidelines, but I will mention only a couple. Members have been told that the guidelines attempt to clarify the existing law but, as currently drafted, they do not even get the basic law right. The second part of the statute, section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, which deals with child destruction, is completely omitted from the guidelines. It is unlawful for a medical practitioner, in certain circumstances:
“to destroy the life of a child”.
Yet the guidelines offer no guidance to medical practitioners on the consequences of that Act.
Mr Shannon: A few years ago, 194,000 unborn children were murdered across the water, and only 1% of those deaths resulted from emergency operations. Will the Member and the Assembly agree that it is not a figure that we want to be emulated here?
Mr Donaldson: I thank the Member for his contribution, and I agree entirely with him. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the draft guidelines, and particularly the clinical guidelines at annex C, are those issued for England and Wales by the Royal College of Gynaecology. If there is not an agenda to extend the availability of abortion in Northern Ireland and the 1967 Act is not supposed to apply here, will someone explain to me why the draft clinical guidelines that apply to the Act in England and Wales are simply being imported into the guidelines in Northern Ireland? That is why the draft guidelines are fundamentally flawed, and the amendment fails to recognise that.
Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member agree that the Assembly should have access to the results of post-mortems that are carried out in Northern Ireland on the basis of foetal abnormality? Should Members not have a definition of foetal abnormality?
Mr Donaldson: The Member for Strangford is absolutely right, and the guidelines are flawed in that respect too. The Assembly has a duty to protect the right to life, which must include the rights of the unborn child. The amendment fails to reject the current deeply flawed guidelines.
Mr Durkan: Does the Rt Hon Member recognise that none of those Members who spoke in favour of the amendment recognised or conceded any of the flaws that other Members had identified in the guidelines? Members who are content with the guidelines will vote in favour of the amendment, but anyone who has any reservations about them should not vote in favour of it.
Mr Donaldson: I thank the honourable Member for that contribution. He is absolutely right, and that is why we cannot accept the amendment. It does not address the flaws in the draft guidelines. The motion that is before us —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?
Mr Donaldson: The motion standing in my name and in that of my honourable friend Iris Robinson recognises that the guidelines are flawed and that we must go back to the drawing board. It also recognises that we need to send out a clear signal to Westminster that we are not in favour of liberalising the law in Northern Ireland. The amendment fails to send out that clear signal, but the motion succeeds in doing so. Therefore, I ask Members to support the motion.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly opposes the introduction of the proposed guidelines on the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland; believes that the guidelines are flawed; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to abandon any attempt to make abortion more widely available in Northern Ireland.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Mr Elliott: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to bring forward the required legislation to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board.
This motion never should have been brought to the House, and I am disappointed that we must debate it today. In early 2006, the Secretary of State agreed to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), only then to overturn his decision almost immediately. The issue has been around for some time.
The success and profitability of the agriculture sector reverberates throughout rural communities and throughout the entire Northern Ireland economy. Red tape in the agrifood sector has been well highlighted by the Ulster Farmers’ Union campaign. It has run a high-profile, high-impact campaign, which calls on the Government to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. The issue predates the restoration of the Assembly in May. We debated the issue earlier in the year before the restoration of devolution, and representatives from all parties spoke in that debate.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union met all parties, and it was keen to progress the issue of reducing red tape and bureaucracy in the agriculture sector. The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board was one of five recommendations that all parties at that time supported. The excessive levels of unnecessary bureaucracy in the agriculture sector show little sign of abating, and, frankly, they are unworkable.
I pay tribute to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and her Department, and to the Minister of the Environment, for proposing a review of the red tape that affects Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector. The bureaucratic tipping point has been reached in many areas of the sector.
The damage that is being done to the sector far outweighs the benefits. Recently published Government statistics show that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development issued 18 business surveys last year, at a cost of over £318,000 to farm businesses. Only the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment issued more. That £318,000 is probably just the tip of the red-tape iceberg that local farmers have to deal with.
Unnecessary layers of bureaucracy must be pared away to reduce impediments to businesses and, putting it bluntly, to save money. The former Secretary of State’s about-turn on the future of the Agricultural Wages Board does not sit well with his party’s pledge to reduce bureaucracy. When that quango was established, it performed the essential task of safeguarding the right of farm workers to a fair wage. It also offered a benchmark for farm owners and managers. However, it is no longer required, and the Government must carry out their original pledge through the Department.
The Agricultural Wages Board in Northern Ireland does not run on its own; it costs a significant amount of money to run. The national minimum wage already protects all workers in Northern Ireland. An Agricultural Wages Board grade 1 wage, which is paid for an employee’s first year in agriculture employment, is equivalent to the national minimum wage.
Red tape, bureaucracy, equality and discrimination are all words frequently heard in Government and, quite often, in this Chamber. Why should the agriculture industry and agriculture employers be treated differently to any other industry? No other industry has a wages board; every other industry relies on the national minimum wage. I have heard that the Agricultural Wages Board exists to protect people from ethnic minorities who work in the agriculture industry. Why is there no protection for those groups in the education sector, the Health Service, the construction industry, the engineering industry, restaurants and supermarkets? Why is there not similar protection in those industries, if that is what this is about? I do not believe that it is. The Agricultural Wages Board is just another layer of bureaucracy. Again, I emphasise that agriculture employers are being discriminated against by the Agricultural Wages Board. If that is the case, let us cut it out because there is no need for it. It is another part of bureaucracy in Northern Ireland that costs money.
I have not brought this issue to the House to have a bash at the Minister. However, on 8 January in this Chamber, Ms Gildernew, who was not the Minister at the time, said:
“Without a local Minister in charge, and without the Assembly and its scrutiny Committee in place, DARD is not fully accountable. The result of that is that farmers are being short-changed … All parties have voiced widespread concerns in the debate about the way in which DARD operates. Its methods have caused unnecessary hardship. The culture of red-tape bureaucracy and the lack of support and flexibility offered to farmers are the hallmarks of the way in which DARD does business in the North.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 21, p225, col 2].
“The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is also one of the UFU’s five priorities. Sinn Féin endorses all five priorities and gives its commitment to champion them.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 21, p226, col 2].
She also said:
“We need a local Minister — there is no question about that. Sinn Féin has argued consistently that farmers in the North are not getting a fair deal. The Department has not been their champion. A local Minister would do a better job than any direct-rule Minister, and, as I have said many times before, it does not matter to which party that Minister belongs.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 21, p227, col 1].
Ms Ruane also spoke in the debate, stating that:
“My party supports the removal of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) because, with the introduction of the minimum wage in 1999, the AWB has become yet another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 21, p216, col 1].
All I ask is that that policy from January be adopted, so that we get rid of another layer of bureaucracy and red tape and another quango from the system.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that mobile phones must be switched off completely; otherwise, they interfere with the recording system.
Dr W McCrea: I thank Mr Elliott for placing the item on the agenda for debate, because it is a worthy issue.
There is anger and frustration in the farming community that this matter has not been dealt with effectively and honourably by the Department and by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.
During the transitional Assembly, there was a debate on over-bureaucratic administration in the agriculture industry. I refer Members to the motion that was tabled on Monday 8 January 2007.
The reason for today’s debate is that many thousands of farm businesses across the Province are being hampered by numerous tiers of unnecessary bureaucracy, especially at a time when the success and profitability of farms is under tremendous strain. The farming industry is facing major challenges, and the recent ‘Northern Ireland Red Meat Industry Task Force: Strategy Review’ shows how understandable it is that farmers are angry with the Minister, because she refuses to actively assist them in their plight. I assure the House that the farming community has enough to think about without the constant burden of bureaucracy and form-filling, especially when every word written appears to be nit-picked by a few over-zealous civil servants.
I understand that safeguards and standards must be adhered to, and that the highest level of traceability is essential for the protection of the industry. No one is seeking to remove those relevant and helpful measures, but that cannot be said about the Agricultural Wages Board.
During the debate on 8 January, the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone’s colleague the Member for South Down Caitríona Ruane said, and I quote:
“The Ulster Farmers’ Union’s policy document ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’, puts forward a number of workable and extremely practical measures, that, if implemented, would go some way to addressing the excessive amount of red tape.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 21, p215, col 2].
She went on to say:
“My party supports the removal of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) because, with the introduction of the minimum wage in 1999, the AWB has become yet another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy.” — m[Official Report, Bound Volume 21, p216, col 1].
What does the Department not understand about that clear statement by Caitríona Ruane?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, speaking as a Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone at that time, said:
“The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is also one of the UFU’s five priorities. Sinn Féin endorses all five priorities and gives its commitment to champion them.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 21, p226, col 2].
The Minister now has the audacity to try to remove the commitment to one of the very priorities that she, when she was a Member of the House, said she was going to champion.
She also went on to say that a Minister in Northern Ireland would do a much better job than any direct rule Minister. Let me address that point, because under direct rule, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain — whom I certainly have no bouquets for — said on 21 March 2006, during his statement on the review of public administration, that the Agricultural Wages Board would cease to exist.
Therefore, under a direct rule Minister, the Agricultural Wages Board was going; the current Minister told us that the job would be better done by a Minister from Northern Ireland; and we now find that she has turned that decision on its head. I understand the anger of farmers. However, I cannot understand the Minister’s blatant refusal to put her own words into action, which is in defiance of the review of public administration recommendation.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union has consistently highlighted to all the local political parties the need for the abolition of the Northern Ireland Agricultural Wages Board, and it believed that it had their support.
The Minister’s excuse for her somersault is worthy of contempt and proves once again that rather than being the champion of the Northern Ireland farmers and freeing them from the burden of bureaucracy, she has decided to grind the industry into the ground. There is no justification for the Minister’s action. She must now change her decision on the Agricultural Wages Board or rest assured that she does not have the confidence of the House. I support the motion.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The motion has nothing to do with bureaucracy and dealing with red tape, but is a blatant attempt to cut the wages of farm workers in the North, which would, in turn, open the door to more poverty in rural Ireland. Sinn Féin believes that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board would lead to further lower wages and the exploitation of agriculture workers in the North of Ireland, particularly migrant and temporary workers who are used as a source of cheap labour. The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board would pave the way to make the North the agricultural sweatshop of Western Europe.
I am opposed to any measure to reduce take-home pay and the standard of living for agriculture workers — and all workers — in Ireland. Sinn Féin is opposed to the exploitation of workers, whether they are native, migrant or temporary workers. It is opposed to the North of Ireland becoming the agriculture slavery capital of these islands.
Mr T Clarke: Will the Member give way?
Mr W Clarke: I have only a couple of minutes.
Many of our farm workers are among the lowest paid of the workforce in the North, and it is essential that they have the strongest legal protection.
The biggest challenge for the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to tackle is the falling farm-gate prices that make it hard for farmers to improve labour standards while staying in business. We all have a duty to the people who supply our food. The Irish people must be conscious that the food that they choose at the supermarket ultimately affects the lives of farmers and farm workers.
I also believe that we can learn a lesson from the Fairtrade Foundation. We need a similar system in Ireland, where prices for certified products include a social premium that consumers know will go towards improving the welfare, pay and conditions of workers. Farm workers have the right to good working conditions and a living wage. No one in the House could disagree with that statement — I hope not anyway.
The House should be in no doubt that our farming community is under immense pressure, particularly the beef sector, which has been clearly identified in the recent report by the Red Meat Industry Task Force. Farmers are under pressure to cut costs, and the only area where that is possible is in their workforce. The result has been a drastic reduction in the number of permanently employed agriculture workers worldwide, and that creates the perfect conditions for exploitation. It is essential, therefore, that mechanisms are in place to promote the protection of vulnerable sections of our community, particularly migrant labourers and women workers, who continually face lower wages and a reduction in employment.
Although everyone involved in farming wants to see red tape cut, it should not be at the expense of the low paid. Given the remote nature of the agriculture labour force and the strong links between home and job, there must be extra protection. The AWB sets a minimum wage rate for agriculture workers that provides reasonable earnings for workers, but that is affordable for the industry. The North of Ireland Agricultural Wages Board’s rate is lower than that in England, Wales or Scotland.
The abolition of the AWB would ensure that agriculture workers in the North would be at an even greater disadvantage. The current standard rate for the England and Wales AWB is £6 an hour, the standard rate for the Scotland AWB is £5·96 an hour, and the standard rate for the Northern of Ireland AWB is £5·70 an hour. Workers in the agriculture industry could face an 18p an hour cut in their wages if the motion is passed, as the minimum hourly rate for a person over 22 years of age is £5·52.
Agriculture labour has always been hard, dangerous and dirty work, and it remains so in Ireland. The migrant workers who drive the crop sprayers, harvest the vegetables and fruit, pack and process the vegetables and mushrooms, and work in the abattoir slaughter sector, work long and unsocial shifts for very low wages. It is down to us, as elected representatives, to scrutinise the way in which industry deals with the exploitation of migrant workers.
Mr T Clarke: Will the Member give way?
Mr W Clarke: I have only a couple of minutes.
The AWB has set up a new working group to examine issues of the exploitation of migrant workers, particularly excessive rents for overcrowded accommodation. A truly sustainable agriculture industry treats workers with respect, pays them a fair wage and protects them from unnecessary dangers. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr P J Bradley: I support the motion in the hope that our efforts in the Assembly will reduce the amount of red tape associated with DARD’s responsibilities.
Red tape and duplication are bad enough, but, considering that the Agricultural Wages Board is financed by a levy on the farming industry, it is high time to abolish it. Of course, that thinking is not new or unique. On 8 January 2007, when the Transitional Assembly debated the eradication of red tape in DARD, everyone who spoke in the debate agreed to the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board.
Members have heard from the Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee about the contributions on that day from two members of Sinn Féin. Those contributions are relevant to this debate and are worth repeating. Ms Ruane, a Sinn Féin Member for South Down, said:
“My party supports the removal of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) because, with the introduction of the minimum wage in 1999, the AWB has become yet another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 21, p216, col 1].
The Minister, Ms Gildernew, then a private Member of the Assembly, is recorded in the Hansard report as saying:
“The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is also one of the UFU’s five priorities. Sinn Féin endorses all five priorities and gives its commitment to champion them … It seems that DARD’s policy is ‘do as I say; not as I do.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 21, p226, col 2].
“We need a local Minister … A local Minister would do a better job than any direct-rule Minister.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 21, p227, col 1].
That was a mere 10 months ago, and questions must be asked about the Minister’s U-turn. Was that a direction from her party, with which, perhaps, she does not agree, or is the withdrawal of her commitment of 8 January 2007 to the Ulster Farmers’ Union campaign a decision of her own making?
However, Members must not lose sight of the key issues. Although I generalise, we must consider the worker in the field. Every worker, from unqualified to highly skilled, should be paid an honest and meaningful wage — no ifs or buts: a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Perhaps highly skilled workers can demand an acceptable income for their labour, but that is not the prerogative of unskilled workers. Fortunately, minimum wage legislation that deals with this issue is in situ.
Anyone who takes an interest in farming knows that farm incomes have been almost non-existent for most of the past decade and that farmers’ sons and daughters have moved away from the family farm because it could not give them a decent wage. Most of those people did not even expect the minimum wage.
The poor financial returns that are currently being experienced by farmers — particularly full-time, self-employed farmers — is an issue that, if taken seriously enough by DARD and the Minister, could, one day, see a return to the days in which farmers were only too pleased to share profits with their farm workers.
I repeat my concerns about the additional red tape that surrounds the minimum wage. Surely, in this day and age, it must be possible for the Minister and the Department to compare the two systems and how they apply to the agriculture industry and then report their findings to the House. The Minister should monitor the minimum wage legislation in order to ensure that it is being applied and that rights and privileges are afforded to all workers, indigenous and migratory, in agriculture and all sectors of industry.
I note the Minister’s concern that some immigrant workers could be disadvantaged if the Agricultural Wages Board were to be abolished. Will the Minister tell Members about the sector, or sectors, of the agriculture industry that she has identified as blatantly taking advantage of immigrant workers?
Mr Ford: I restate my support for the Ulster Farmers’ Union campaign against red tape and, specifically, the five-point plan. If my constituency colleague Dr McCrea had not done so, some of his researchers would have checked what I said during the Transitional Assembly’s debates on this matter. Therefore, earlier today, I read my speech and found that, although I supported that plan at that stage, I made no mention of the Agricultural Wages Board. For the majority of farmers, I considered it to be the least important aspect of the five-point plan. Now, for the majority of farmers, there is no question of having employees. As P J Bradley said, the question now is whether there is an option to make a living off the farm for a single family.
Many other aspects of red tape have been highlighted; those bear greater consideration and are more important to the lives of the majority of farming families in Northern Ireland. If Members cannot ensure that individual family farms make a living for a family, there is little point in worrying too much about the minority agriculture employees. That is how the situation has dramatically changed since the establishment of the Agricultural Wages Board.
When the board was established, there was a significant number of employees; many small family farms would have employed one or more people. In those circumstances, individuals would have had few negotiating rights if they were the sole employees of small farm businesses in areas of high unemployment.
It is understandable why the AWB was established; it was necessary, and it served a valuable purpose. However, not only has agriculture changed, but other circumstances in society changed with the introduction of the minimum wage legislation. Members have established that the minimum wage legislation parallels the AWB. It is completely unnecessary to have a separate layer of bureaucracy to deal with a matter that is dealt with elsewhere in a way that meets the needs of workers in every part of the UK and in every sector of the economy. That is clearly far beyond the remit of the existing operation of the AWB.
I fully support the motion, but I repeat the point that the Minister has more work to do to address the other four points in the UFU’s five-point plan. I hope that the Minister, if she is not here to enthusiastically support the motion, will deal with some of the other aspects. People should not have nightmares because of a minor miscalculation, or misplaced decimal point, in field sizes or numbers on their single farm payment claim forms. Such matters cause many problems for people, and the Minister must deal with that. The Agricultural Wages Board is an important issue, but it is not the most important one.
On that basis, I find myself in almost total agreement — possibly unusually — with everything that Mr Elliott, Dr McCrea and Mr PJ Bradley said. I was somewhat amused by Mr Clarke’s Marxist analysis of the exploitation of the working classes by the wicked capitalists, because I certainly did not recognise that portrait of farmers in Northern Ireland.
There is undoubtedly a problem in Northern Ireland, as in other parts of these islands, with the exploitation of migrant workers. However, that is not an issue that the Agricultural Wages Board can address effectively, because the problem is that the minimum wage laws are not enforced. The unfair treatment of migrant workers, a minority of whom might be forced to pay ridiculous rents, for example, must be addressed. However, the Agricultural Wages Board is not the place to address such problems. It has not addressed them, so it fulfils no useful function, and it should go.
Mr Bresland: I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, as I welcome any opportunity to support the demise of an unaccountable quango. The introduction of the national minimum wage should have effectively abolished the Agricultural Wages Board. Northern Ireland’s farmers are being choked by an unacceptable amount of red tape, and the Agricultural Wages Board is another example of such bureaucracy.
Other industries are legally bound to accept the national minimum wage, yet the farming industry in Northern Ireland is further bound by the Agricultural Wages Board. I call upon the Minister to listen to the farming industry and to take proactive measures to cut red tape and bureaucracy.
In seeking to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board, I am not advocating a return to the hiring fairs that operated until the 1940s. However, I am advocating the adoption of the national minimum wage for all workers. Many of my farming constituents in West Tyrone would be only too happy to receive £5·52 an hour for their labours instead of having to sell lambs, suckler calves and beef cattle at early 1980s prices while their input costs continue to rise.
The Northern Ireland farming industry is struggling to adapt, as was clearly shown in the red meat task force’s report, which was published earlier this month. The industry faces many challenges ranging from disease control, environmental issues and the dreaded bureaucracy to reduced income and high input costs.
I fully accept that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must address many important issues, including nitrates management, the future of the red meat industry, environmental issues, the delivery of the rural development programme and the task of ensuring that Northern Ireland has a sustainable agriculture industry and a vibrant rural community.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must make effective moves to cut red tape for farmers, as advocated by the Ulster Farmers’ Union. The demise of the Agricultural Wages Board can play a positive role in that process and in offering farmers the freedom to farm. Farm workers should have nothing to fear from that move, as they have the full protection of the national minimum wage. I support the motion.
Ms Anderson: Ba mhaith liom caint i gcoinne an mholaidh seo. I oppose the motion. At the core of this debate are issues of equality and human rights. I know that the NICEM and the trade union representatives — who have joined us and are seated in the Public Gallery — will agree with that assertion. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I welcome them here today.
Members have a moral and statutory duty to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable in society are protected.
Mr T Clarke: On a point of order. Is it in order to refer to people sitting in the Public Gallery?
Mr Deputy Speaker: No, it is not. It is not in order to make reference to them, but since it passed, I thought it best to leave it.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. That is exactly the role that the Agricultural Wages Board performs. Having examined in greater detail the Board’s role, remit, and functions, it is a role that Sinn Féin agrees is required.
There should be no mistake, those who argue for the abolition of the board on the grounds that it is only a further, unnecessary and inconvenient level of bureaucracy do the board a disservice. Despite what Tom Elliott says, abolition is not about inconvenience or bureaucracy; it is about dismantling protection and basic standards for all farmers and agricultural workers.
It has been argued that wages of workers in the agriculture sector are too high in comparison with a small farmer’s own weekly wage, which statistics estimate at £88 a week. However, the motion is aimed at dismantling the protections of the vulnerable in society and at lowering the real wages of agricultural workers.
The task of the Assembly is to use the opportunities — now that Ministers at Westminster no longer make the decisions for agriculture — to create the vibrant, agriculture sector in which farmers’ incomes are considerably higher.
At last, Members are in the position to give agriculture its central place in the development of the economy. The Sinn Féin Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle Gildernew, will work with the Irish people in our common interest to foster and nurture the agriculture sector across Ireland, which has for so long been neglected here in the North —
Mr Ford: Will the Member give way?
Ms Anderson: Suigh síos — under British rule and the cheap food policies of Westminster.
We live in a world of global warming, in which food prices are expected to rise at unprecedented rates. Recent increases in grain prices are indications that those changes have just begun. Members have a responsibility to ensure that those price rises are managed properly and that the benefits do not accrue to middlemen or multi-national wholesalers, but are used —
A Member: Will the Member give way?
Ms Anderson: Suigh síos. Those benefits should be used to ensure that urban dwellers are not faced with huge, unaffordable food price rises, but also to ensure that farmers’ incomes rise, and that the conditions of farm workers are improved.
A challenging time lies ahead for the agriculture sector. Members need to manage it — for food producers; consumers; farmers; and agriculture workers — to ensure that everyone gains and that small farmers’ weekly incomes are not £88 a week. What use are declarations of minimum wage rates unless there is a means to monitor and oversee conditions in that sector and to ensure that those conditions are observed?
We have heard stories of wives, daughters, and relatives of farmers who tirelessly work long hours without rights and without social protection. They are people who do not even exist in the employment data, or enjoy rights such as pensions, inheritance, healthcare, holidays, social security or the right to attend further education.
Many of the people whose wages are regulated by the Agricultural Wages Board are at the lower tier of the industry. Often they are migrant workers who are low-paid and vulnerable.
There are existing protections in the minimum wage legislation, but those workers are often new to the country. They are faced with language and cultural barriers, and they are, all too often, unaware of their rights. Often the work is seasonal or casual and, therefore, not as tightly regulated as other areas of industry or of the economy as a whole.
We all remember the horror that we felt when 18 Chinese cockle-pickers drowned in Lancashire. That almost unimaginable tragedy was followed by widespread demands for more protection for migrant workers. Such an incident must never happen again. Yet, just three years later, the Assembly is asked to remove what little protection migrant workers have.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up. For those who were puzzled, suigh síos means “sit down”.
Mr Irwin: I also thank Mr Elliott for tabling the motion.
The minimum wage legislation has been very practical and welcome and has safeguarded many people, most importantly, the youth of our society, in securing a fair wage. The fact that there is still a separate organisation to oversee the pay structures in the agriculture sector can only be described as another ball and chain around the ankle of the farming industry.
Agriculture is the only industry that has a wages board. In ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’, the Ulster Farmers’ Union lists the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board as one of those five steps. It ties in with another of the steps: the reduction of red tape and form-filling. The Minister herself, in this very Chamber, voiced her support for the Ulster Farmers’ Union document. I invite the Minister to confirm that, since taking her position as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, she has performed a spectacular U-turn.
Mr T Clarke: Does the Member agree not that the Minister has necessarily done a U-turn, but that since January she has had an elevation to Minister and is now a puppet on a string for the Department?
Mr Irwin: It looks very much like that.
She now refuses to champion all five priorities laid out by the Ulster Farmers’ Union in ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’. She said, on 8 January in this Chamber:
“The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is also one of the UFU’s five priorities. Sinn Féin endorses all five priorities and gives its commitment to champion them.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 21, p226, col 2].
The Minister appears to have broken her word on that.
In addition, I invite the Minister to confirm either that her party is divided on the issue, or that Caitríona Ruane was wrong when she suggested the removal of the Agricultural Wages Board. My honourable friend the Member for South Antrim has already quoted her words; however, given that the previous Member has just been speaking, I will reiterate them:
“My party supports the removal of the Agricultural Wages Boad (AWB) because, with the introduction of the minimum wage in 1999, the AWB has become yet another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 21, p216, col 1].
Why such a monumental change of heart by the Minister of Agriculture? It is somewhat rich that, in the Chamber on 8 January, other Sinn Féin MLAs related the lack of a devolved Administration to the lack of proactive decision-making on agriculture. The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board would be a great step forward in assisting local industry, yet, when the opportunity exists, the Minister refuses to take it. I support the motion and call on the Minister to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board as soon as possible.
Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I did not expect to be allowed to speak so soon. However, this is an opportunity to debate a very important subject. I say to the Members opposite that there is no division in my party on the issue. They might scrap for little pieces here and there, but that is all that they will get. Sinn Féin will always be foremost in respecting and defending the issues of workers, whatever about anyone else. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker, do I have to take a running commentary from others while I try to make my few points?
Several of the unions have shown that they support the Minister. In today’s ‘Irish News’, a letter written by a member of Unite congratulates the Minister on her decision. Many other people are prepared to say the same.
Ultimately, a Minister is entitled to change her mind — even in the Chamber — on an issue that is of such importance to average workers. Let us consider some of the comments that were made. P J Bradley mentioned the hiring fairs. That is what people had to put up with in the past. Historically, the position of agriculture workers has always been one of low pay, exploitation, awful conditions, and, indeed, abuse of women and sometimes children. David Ford mentioned the farm family. That was the least of the five points that were made. The Minister will defend her decision on the on the other four, which are of immense importance to the agriculture industry.
The motion has been used to simply target the Minister. Having listened to Members’ comments, I consider the issue to be fairly unimportant. The board has existed for years, yet no one has sought its abolition before now. The Assembly should not seek to remove any board lightly that protects the position —
Mr T Clarke: Can the Member explain, therefore, why, in January 2007, his party endorsed all five principles and advocated that the board should be removed? The Member has refused to answer that question when it has been barked across the Chamber at him.
Mr McHugh: I have already mentioned the reason that the Member might have a different view on the matter. When scrutinising the entire situation, care must be taken not to remove workers’ protection. Several Members, including Tom Elliott, made various points about the raft of protections that exist, including the national minimum wage, section 75, and equality legislation. In general, politicians pay lip service to such issues in councils and elsewhere. There is precious little support for either section 75 or equality with regard to immigrants, whether they are migrant workers or otherwise. Those measures were only put in place because people were being exploited.
Dr W McCrea: Will the Member give way?
Mr McHugh: I do not have time to give way; I want to make a few other points.
At present, the mistreatment of migrant workers is widespread. It has been said that £187 is a much better wage than the £88 that farmers receive. However, there are a fair number of large farms and, indeed, rich farmers who get sizeable single farm payments — in some instances as much as £200,000 plus. Regardless of whether they are nationals or people from further afield, that is the situation in which workers find themselves, and £187 is a low wage for anyone. Therefore, there is no problem with keeping the issue on the radar for future scrutiny.
It is important that quangos are questioned and, if necessary, removed. Sinn Féin is in favour of that; so, too, is the Minister. However, the members of the Agricultural Wages Board are unpaid. Some people might say that the board is a costly item that farmers must carry. However, the multiples, processors and big manufacturers have cost farmers millions of pounds every year, yet what have some of the unions done to remove them? That is the important question that we must ask ourselves.
I am against the motion because it is a blatant attempt to make a political point and does not support ordinary workers. Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Elliott for securing the debate. It is clearly important to those who are involved in agriculture, including both employers and employees. Although it is not top of the agenda, as Mr Ford pointed out, it merits debate nonetheless. I welcome the fact that the Assembly has had the chance to discuss it.
I have listened to the points that Mr Elliott and other Members raised. I recognise their concerns, most of which are not new to me. Before I deal with Members’ points, I will set out some of the background to the Agricultural Wages Board, the cases for and against the board’s abolition, and the rationale for my recent decision not to abolish the board.
The Agricultural Wages (Regulation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 established the AWB’s structure and statutory authority. Under the Order, the AWB sets a minimum wage rate for agricultural employees over a range of grades. It also sets holiday pay and entitlement, sick pay, and the maximum charge that an employer may make for accommodation provided to employees.
Protection for minority workers in other industries has been mentioned during the debate. I am the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, and it is my job to look after the rights of the people for which my Department has responsibility. However, I fully support protection for minority workers in any industry. The maximum charge that an employer may make for accommodation has been a pertinent issue over many years, particularly for migrant workers.
The Agricultural Wages Board comprises 15 members: six are nominated by the Ulster Farmers’ Union, representing employers; six are nominated by the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union, representing employees; and three are independent members.
In addition to the board here, there are two boards in Britain. A similar arrangement for determining agricultural wage rates exists in the South. The board has no staff, and does not expend a budget. Board members do not receive a salary, but receive attendance fees and travel expenses amounting to less than £5,000 for the year 2005-06. That represents a minimal amount of money for the protection of workers’ rights.
My Department is responsible for the enforcement of the legislation associated with the board. In practice, that tends to be reactive, in response to complaints that are received from agriculture workers. I am glad to say that there have been very few complaints, which is an indication of compliance by employers. Workers’ rights are also supported by enforcement work and inspections of employers undertaken by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.
Since its establishment, the board has consistently balanced the needs of, and maintained a stable relationship between, agriculture employers and employees. If, in line with the motion, I were to bring forward the necessary measures to abolish the board, primary legislation would be required to repeal The Agricultural Wages (Regulation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. That would take some time and would require a legislative vehicle.
On my arrival in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, one of the first issues that crossed my desk concerned a recommendation from the Ulster Farmers’ Union to abolish the board. That is one element of the UFU’s five-point plan, which has been rehearsed several times during the debate. I will not go through the comments that were made in January, other than to say that we stand over what was said. However, and on full exploration of the facts, I decided not to abolish the board. However —
Mr Irwin: Will the Member give way?
Ms Gildernew: No. I will not give way.
Dr W McCrea: Why not?
Ms Gildernew: I do not want to.
Dr W McCrea: This is a debating Chamber.
Ms Gildernew: Dr McCrea has had his chance to speak.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Minister, I shall take this opportunity to go through a ritual that we must perform. If the business on the Order Paper has not been disposed of by 6.00 pm, in accordance with Standing Order 10.3, I will allow business to continue until 7.00 pm, or until the business has been completed.
Ms Gildernew: Mr Elliott, go raibh maith agat, I did not say that I did not have time to give way. I said that I chose not to give way, and I stand over that decision. I do not have to give way, and I prefer not to.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I did not, in any way, misinterpret what you said in the debate. You have the Floor, so you may continue your speech.
Ms Gildernew: Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Ulster Farmers’ Union argued, and continues to argue, that with the national minimum wage structure in place to protect the rights of all farm workers, the board is an unnecessary level of bureaucracy for farmers, and that the higher wage rates that are set by the board burden the agriculture sector through the imposition of higher costs. My initial view, in line with my own party’s view at the time, was to support that recommendation. Much has been made of that.
I believe that it takes a bigger person to change a position. When the full facts were presented to me, I realised that I did not have all the information required in order to make a decision.
However, in an effort to consider the impact of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board on all sectors — [Interruption.]
I did not interrupt the Committee Chairman when he spoke.
In order to consider that matter in line with the equality agenda, I considered the balanced views presented by my officials of the potential impact on employers and employees. I also, importantly, consulted with the ATGWU (Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union), which represents the employees. The ATGWU argued that abolition of the board would place employees here at a financial disadvantage when compared with other workers on these islands, and that it would have wider implications as the board is used as a benchmark for the wider agrifood industry and other rural occupations here.
The strength of feeling at my meeting with the ATGWU representatives was illustrated by their remark that they feared that the loss of the board might result in the North becoming the sweatshop for agriculture workers on these islands. That is surely not what Members want for the North’s agriculture employees — or any employees, for that matter.
Having listened to the views expressed, I subsequently considered the case for and against abolition of the board. The national minimum wage structure does not offer a similar level of protection to that offered by the board. The loss of workers’ rights is evident where the board’s remit exceeds that of the national minimum wage structure — that is the case in respect of wage rates and leave entitlements. Let me illustrate that point. When I considered the matter in May of this year, the board’s minimum wage rate was set at £5·35 per hour, the same level as the national minimum wage rate, but the board also allowed for a higher standard rate of £5·70 an hour for employees with more than 40 weeks’ cumulative employment in agriculture. The difference in the two rates is 35p, which, based on a 40-hour week, represent a total weekly difference of some £14. Members will agree that that is not an insignificant amount of money for low-paid agriculture workers.
While I accept that there is a perceived burden on the employer as a result of those marginally higher wage costs, that has to be considered in the context of low-paid agriculture workers and the need to retain them within the agriculture industry in the North. In addition, the farmers faced with higher wage costs tend to be the larger and more profitable farmers, as has already been mentioned by Gerry McHugh. The board also provides for further skills-related wage rates, rising to £7·70 for farm-management grades, aimed at encouraging suitably skilled people in the industry. The national minimum wage structure does not allow for those higher rates.
Let me make it clear that it was my intention at the time of the decision, and remains my intention now, to ensure that regulation and bureaucracy that is imposed is necessary, fit for purpose, proportionate and delivered in a way which best allows the industry to get on with its business.
As regards the additional bureaucracy associated with the Agricultural Wages Board, I note that it is limited to determining whether the work is considered agricultural activity and therefore falls within the remit of the board, and to compliance with the wage rates in place, which differ depending on age, skills and experience. Of course, farmers can opt to pay the higher rate, thereby avoiding that level of bureaucracy completely. Interestingly, the complexity of the board’s wage rates, which have the potential to increase the bureaucratic burden, is agreed by all members of the board, including by the representatives of the Ulster Farmers’ Union.
In considering the case for and against abolition, I reached several conclusions. The first is that the national minimum wage structure does not offer farm workers the same protection afforded by the board, particularly in terms of wage rates. Secondly, while wage costs under the board are slightly higher, that has to be balanced against the need to retain suitably skilled agriculture workers in the North. Thirdly, the level of bureaucracy associated with the board’s rate is not significant and is no different in the North than anywhere else on these islands. Finally, the board is a valuable forum for wage negotiations, and, as I have said, is an important benchmark for the wider agrifood industry and other rural occupations. In those circumstances, I decided that the board should not be abolished.
In conclusion, I am of the firm view that the abolition of the board would place agriculture workers here at a disadvantage when compared with workers elsewhere on these islands. In the absence of an alternative mechanism to protect the rights of agriculture employees in line with the equality agenda, I remain of the view that the board should not be abolished.
I believe that my decision is in the interests of sustainable farming and protects the rights and continuing availability of farm workers, including migrant workers, in the North. This is a time of significant influx of migrants to the North; in fact, I have just received a letter from the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities expressing the view that the abolition of the board would have adverse impacts on migrant workers and those from ethnic minorities who take agricultural jobs.
Furthermore, I do not believe that it is in the interests of the agriculture industry to allow the North to become, as suggested by the ATGWU, the sweatshop for agricultural workers on these islands. Now is not the time to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. Accordingly, I cannot support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Savage: I commend my colleague and friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Mr Elliott for securing the debate. I support the motion and declare an interest as a farmer.
It is hard to believe that the Agricultural Wages Board costs the Government approximately £25,000 a year. Surely the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development can find a better way of spending that money.
The existence of the organisation has been questioned many times over the years. Outrage followed a headline in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ on 15 March 2003, which said that farm workers in Ulster were better off than their bosses. That was a very serious situation, which came about because an above-inflation wage hike of 3·75% meant that farm workers were earning more than their employers — a complete scandal. When we consider the bad press that farmers have received over the years, I ask myself: what did the Agricultural Wages Board do about that? There are many people who have a lot of questions to answer on that score.
It was then that the Ulster Farmers’ Union called for the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. It continues to do so, arguing that the national minimum wage is in place and is a fair and sufficient basis on which to proceed. A member of the board at that time, who was an Ulster Farmers’ Union representative from County Down, said that it was something from the past. The fact that a member of the board said that left a big question mark in my mind.
The Agricultural Wages Board is yet another of Northern Ireland’s litany of unelected quangos that waste taxpayers’ money hand over fist, and they should be done away with. We now have the opportunity to do that and make savings for the taxpayer, thus ensuring that money can go to front-line services where it is needed most.
We have been elected to take decisions, unlike those who sit on quangos. I recall that in the first Assembly a Minister, who was a very influential person, said that people had been elected to the House and that we did not need unelected people in quangos to tell us what to do. We are here now, and we have a job to do. Let us do the work and take on our responsibilities. We are here today, but we have not moved on one bit.
Although there are opportunities to save taxpayers’ money, we also have the opportunity to listen to the representatives of our farming organisations. We are not the first to debate the existence of the Agricultural Wages Board. As was said earlier, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, announced in March 2006 that the Agricultural Wages Board in Northern Ireland was to be scrapped. That announcement came in the wake of Government plans to reduce bureaucracy.
However, in April of the same year, Mr Hain backtracked on his statement and decided that the board would not be abolished. If the contents of the statement had been implemented, Northern Ireland would have been the first UK region to abandon its Agricultural Wages Board and thus would have taken a lead on many issues.
When people are trying to get elected, it is easy for them to make statements that please the general public. However, it can be difficult to stand over those statements when those people are in a position of power. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and, sadly, under devolution, the new Minister has decided to keep the Agricultural Wages Board, contrary to the views and wishes of many Members of the House.
The duplication of legislation in the House, and in Departments, borders on red tape. I have known a number of the officials in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for many years, and I am not criticising them. However, the Minister has been wrongly advised not to scrap the Agricultural Wages Board. The farming industry has come through difficult times in the past few years, but it has survived. The Department now has the opportunity to move forward.
Dr W McCrea: The basic issue of trust is at stake. On 8 January 2007, the Minister, as an elected Member — and she is an elected Member along with everyone else — said:
The priority of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is as important as the rest. If the Minister cannot be trusted to keep that promise, how can the farming community trust and rely on her to keep any of the other four promises?
Ms Gildernew: Will Mr Savage give way?
Dr W McCrea: No. [Laughter.]
Mr Savage: I have given way to one Member, so I have to give way to another.
Ms Gildernew: Some people are losing the run of themselves this evening.
I was not given bad advice. When I became Minister, I considered the issue of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, and I soon realised that I had heard only one side of the argument. When I considered the rights of the people who are the most vulnerable in society and the issues concerning the protection of agriculture workers, I knew that I was doing the right thing. As a republican, I have no doubt that I made the right decision. I stand over that decision, and I do not regret it for a minute. I want to look after the rights of the most vulnerable and low-paid people in society, and the Member will know better than most how concerned I am about farmers and their profitability. I took the action that I did because I knew that it was the right thing to do. I stand over that, and the Member will recognise that I will do my absolute best for farmers, their employees, and the rural community.
Mr McNarry: Will the Member agree that the Minister’s comments go beyond what we have been hearing all week about collectivity and collective Executive decisions? Does the Member agree, on behalf of the Assembly, to ask the Minister whether she is taking the matter to the Executive? Is the matter worthy of Executive referral? As the House is apparently divided, should she seek corporate backing and support, or will she get into trouble, as another Minister has done?
Mr Savage: I can only ask the Minister to consult the Executive, because that is her prerogative, but I hope that she will.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not want you to tell me that I am not sticking to the subject of the debate, because I am serious about this matter. Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has come through a tough time, and it faces an even more difficult time in the coming months.
Over the past 10 days, a dispute has been raging about the Red Meat Industry Task Force report. Will the Minister do everything in her power to bring all sides together to discuss that dispute and to ensure the survival of a viable industry in Northern Ireland? I hope that the Minister will take that extremely serious matter on board. Remember one thing: the agriculture industry is the backbone of Northern Ireland, whether Members like it or not.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 37; Noes 28.
Mr Beggs, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Hamilton, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Lord Morrow, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Savage, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Wells.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Bresland and Mr Elliott.
Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mrs M Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McHugh, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane.
Tellers for the Noes: Ms Anderson and Mr McCartney.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to bring forward the required legislation to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board.
Adjourned at 6.23 pm.